lessons learned from the past

Last week, I participated in the history fair at Selkirk Elementary School as a judge of the entries. This is a chore that I have always enjoyed.

Last week, I participated in the history fair at Selkirk Elementary School as a judge of the entries.

This is a chore that I have always enjoyed.

It is important that we challenge our youth to think about themselves and the world around them and to learn something in the process.

There are always a few of the entries that stand out from the others, and they make my time spent on this chore rewarding. I was not disappointed.

One of the things that I often do is ask the students what they learned. The answers can be interesting.

This time, one youngster commented that one of the things learned was how different things were “back then.”

We are talking about two generations here because most youngsters usually only remember back to their grandparents.

My grandparents were born at the end of the 19th century, about the time that the gold rush was taking place in the Yukon.

During their lifetime, they saw the transition from horse and buggy to men on the moon.

They witnessed the rise of the automobile, survived the Great Depression and lived through two world wars.

That was a period of tremendous change, perhaps more than the human race will ever see again. But I have learned that the younger generation has only a vague understanding of how much things have changed in the past 100 years.

Parks Canada ran a contest in 1985 during its centennial in which we asked the older grades in Dawson City to describe what heritage meant to them.

Some of the answers surprised me.

The children talked about can-can dancers and miners with gold pokes going on sprees.

It was very one-dimensional rendering of the past, and I realized that children had pieced together their notion of what the past was like from the clues provided them by society.

In Dawson, they could see that the gold rush was a big historical event that was visible in the variety of things that the businesses did to entertain visitors.

They could see Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, and entertainment at the Palace Grand Theatre.

They could see Discovery Days being celebrated.

If they were lucky, they visited the museum and looked at the wonderfully exhibited remnants of the past.

The connection with the past may be even more difficult for youths to make in Whitehorse, where rapid change and the introduction of box stores have divorced us from the not-too-distant past.

I wonder how many young people know that Whitehorse was once a community of a few hundred souls, and its main reason for existing was as a stopping-off point on the way to Dawson City, which was then the capital city?

It had no road links to the outside world; a railroad connected it to Skagway to the south, while river steamers connected it with Dawson to the North.

Our connections with the past are rather tenuous and we don’t do a very good job of transmitting our understanding of the past to our children.

First Nations, I think, have done a better job of emphasizing the importance of elders in transmitting the wisdom of one generation to the next.

By contrast, one state in the United States recently considered enacting an official state history.

This frightens me personally, because our history is so rich with people, places and events.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world where the government tells you what history is important and dismisses all the rest.

I’ve learned much about what the past was like in the Yukon. Walking the streets of Dawson City, I have seen the many old homes that people used to live in. They were tiny by today’s standards.

In Whitehorse, I can walk along the waterfront where the old pilings still stick up out of the water along the shore where docks once lined the waterfront.

How many young people understand what they represent?

Some old homes had an outhouse out back, while more progressive dwellings displayed a trapdoor through which, in the winter, a man removed and replaced the honey bucket.

From books and other sources, we can learn more. In the Yukon winter, when transportation was more precarious, than in summer, the supply of fresh food and milk was cut off and everyone had to make-do with canned goods until spring.

In early days, transportation was by foot and horse or dog team in the winter. Once the river froze, the only way to get from Dawson City to Whitehorse, or vice versa, was by horse-drawn sleigh or on foot.

The same trip, downriver in the summer, took a day and a half. The upriver journey was at least twice as long. Now you can drive on a hard surface in five hours, or fly in one.

We didn’t have the level of health care that we enjoy today, and the infant mortality rate was higher. The number of social institutions and the level of social support were meagre by comparison with today’s standards.

Working safety was not a vital concern; you did your job and you didn’t questions such things as safety.

Communications were different 100 years ago, and here is one of the most significant changes. Newspapers were the standard sources of information.

You could send a telegram if you wanted to get a message somewhere in a hurry — it would be hand-delivered at the other end.

Radio didn’t come for decades; television was even slower, especially in the outlying communities.

Remember when television programs were canned, even the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Now we have internet and the thousand-channel universe, instantly available by satellite, if you want them!

The youth of today can’t imagine life without their computers and the iPod.

The kids of the last generation believed they couldn’t live without a Walkman.

If they delve into history, they will learn how recent these innovations are.

Yet the world seems to have functioned reasonably well for the human race for 10,000 years, maybe even one million, before the advent of such technology.

There are significant lessons to be learned by looking at our past if we want to keep the present and the future in perspective.

Seeing those young students reaching out to the past to learn some of the lessons life can offer gives me confidence that there is hope for the future.

If the tradition of the heritage fair is kept up, I will be delighted, next year, to volunteer to be a judge again.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.