The Yukon has some outstanding history. In fact, some of it may eventually be recognized globally.
Pierre Berton, Yukon’s renowned author of popular Canadian history once reflected about his home town, Dawson City. As a child, he thought that all towns were like Dawson, with derelict buildings scattered along every street and avenue.
It was only when he grew up and saw the world that he came to realize that Dawson City was special and that not every town has so many old things lying about to testify to its past.
In fact, growing up in or living in such a community, you might take it for granted. The old buildings are simply viewed as rotting eyesores that should be eliminated. The landscape surrounding the community is filled with vestiges of the past that only seem to get in the way of progress.
Some people have told me this.
How significant is the Klondike? The city of Calgary, population more than one million, can proudly list seven structures that are of national significance, including the Palace Theatre, and the Mewata Drill Hall.
By comparison, the Dawson City area can boast three times that number, practically within spitting distance of each other, including the Palace Grand Theatre, the Old Territorial Administration Building, Robert Service Cabin and the Commissioner’s Residence, all dating back to the gold rush era. That’s not bad for a small town of less than 2,000 residents.
Dawson City is special, and the Klondike has a universal identity. There isn’t another community like it in the Yukon, nor a catch-phrase that is so widely recognized as “Klondike.”
At the same time, it represents the homeland for First Nations people who have lived in the region for hundreds, or thousands of years. There are routes of travel that have been corridors of commerce and a means of access to the land for countless generations.
Then there is the Chilkoot Trail, a traditional trade route used by First Nations people for a long time into the past, with the iconic image of the chain of stampeders labouring over the mountain pass during the frenzy of the gold rush of 1898. This, too, is an image recognized around the world.
If you go to the Parks Canada website and search around, you will find that the Klondike is on the tentative list for World Heritage Site designation.
So what is a world Heritage Site? Simply put, through the auspices of the United Nations, participating nations meet regularly to consider what sites around the world that have “outstanding universal value,” that is, “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”
In the entire world, there are approximately 700 sites listed that contain elements of exceptional universal cultural significance. They include the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis, Stonehenge, the Stature of Liberty, Machu Picchu and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. So the fact that the Klondike might join this elite list is quite an honour.
The proposal to designate the Klondike is an expansive designation covering not one but several places, landscapes and events. It encompasses the traditional use of the landscape by the Han people, and a way of life dramatically altered between 1896 and 1900 by the tumultuous events of the Klondike gold rush.
The description of the nomination on the Parks Canada website includes the Chilkoot Trail, the Yukon and Klondike Rivers (the Thirtymile portion of the Yukon is already designated as a Canadian Heritage River), the traditional fishing camp at Tr’ochek at the mouth of the Klondike River, the historical complex of Dawson City, the Discovery Claim and Dredge Number 4 on Bonanza Creek, and the old Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation mining camp at Bear Creek.
In order to gain this honourable status, nominations go through an extensive, exhaustive, and rather bureaucratic vetting process, during which the proponents must be able to demonstrate they take seriously the responsibility of protecting and managing those values that give the site its universal appeal.
In other words, you have to make a commitment of money, effort and will to manage and protect the World Heritage values, in order to preserve them. But the investment is worth it, and all of the heritage sites in the Klondike proposal are already being managed to protect their heritage values in one way or another by various parties.
To quote UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), “the inscription of a site on the World Heritage List brings an increase in public awareness of the site and of its outstanding values, thus also increasing the tourist activities at the site. When these are well planned for and organized respecting sustainable tourism principles, they can bring important funds to the site and to the local economy.”
It is clear that the Klondike has had a long tradition and left an indelible impression on global sensibilities. Corporations spend millions to gain that kind of public recognition – it’s called branding, and it’s becoming increasingly important in the growing world market place.
Almost from its birth, the Klondike, and in particular Dawson City, has attracted the curious, and the numbers of visitors who come to the region to visit has grown dramatically since then. Tourism has become one of the mainstays of the territorial economy, so it makes sense that we would want to protect and maintain the Klondike “brand.”
But we have to be cautious in how we handle our “brand.”
Quite recently, I saw on the national news that some citizens in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s half dozen cultural World Heritage Sites, were alarmed by the proposal to put a McDonald’s restaurant beside Old Town Lunenburg. There was, some felt, a risk that the historic values might be impaired by this intrusion, and tourism impacted in a negative way.
Take another example: Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley, a former World Heritage Site. It lost its designation in 2009, only the second site ever to do so, because of the construction of the four-lane Waldschlosschen Bridge right in the heart of the designated cultural landscape, which thus impaired the values that originally gave it the designation!
We have something in the Yukon that may be of value to the rest of the world, and which may be added to the prestigious World Heritage List. We should feel proud if that happens.
It offers the opportunity for sustainable tourism in the territory. We will have to provide care and nurturing to preserve this treasure, and make wise decisions that ensure that it is protected well into the future.
But isn’t that worth it?
After all, you wouldn’t build a motorway through the middle of Stonehenge or the Great Wall in the name of progress, would you?
Michael Gates is a local historian, writer and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, History Hunting in the Yukon, (Harbour Publishing), is now available in retail outlets throughout the territory.