Life and death in the Yukon

Here's a mystery for you: why are record numbers of people dying in the Yukon? In 2009, the last year for which Statistics Canada figures are available, 201 people died in the Yukon.

Here’s a mystery for you: why are record numbers of people dying in the Yukon?

In 2009, the last year for which Statistics Canada figures are available, 201 people died in the Yukon. That’s a record, at least for the years where modern statistics are available. In 2001, it was just 134 and in 1991 just 114.

The increase is substantial even when you correct for a growing population. The rate of deaths per 1,000 Yukoners was 3.9 in 1991, 4.4 in 2001 and a whopping 6.0 in 2009.

Maybe Yukoners are more aggressive risk takers, as Brendan Hanley described in his fascinating talk at TEDx Whitehorse earlier this year, and die more often in accidents at work and play.

While the data does show that Yukoners are more accident prone than the average Canadian, my main hypothesis is that increasing numbers of people are deciding to spend their golden years here in the Yukon, rather than retiring Outside.

A hundred years ago, the stereotypical lifestyle was for a young man to come to the Yukon for a few years, strike it rich, and eventually die in a Seattle flophouse surrounded by empty bottles and tattered love notes from dance hall girls who disappeared when the money ran out. Relatively few old-timers stayed to the end, pegging out in their prospector cabin and being buried in a sunny spot by the river by a North West Mounted Police constable after a brief ceremony.

More recently, a few decades ago, people would work in the Yukon and raise their families, then retire Outside. Perhaps somewhere sunny with golf like Kelowna, or maybe in some hometown back in the East where their savings went a long way and they could regale the locals with tales of the northern frontier.

Today, however, the shape of the Yukon’s demographic pyramid has changed dramatically. Over the last decade, the Yukon Bureau of Statistics tells us that the number of Yukoners aged over 75 increased 62 per cent, compared to an overall population growth of 22 per cent. The number of people aged 60-69 more than doubled.

I was tempted to describe these older Yukoners as sourdoughs or old-timers. However, statistical as well as anecdotal evidence suggests many of these people are a new category to the Yukon: senior cheechakos. The number of Yukoners aged 60 and over has gone up so sharply, that we can be relatively certain that substantial numbers of sixty-somethings actually moved to the Yukon.

This trend is obvious at the hockey rink. One meets grandparents who retired after a career Outside and moved to the Yukon to be close to the grandchildren. Or because the health care is good, and often cheaper than in the provinces. And one also meets people who retired early, perhaps from a police force or school system, and have moved to the Yukon as a late-life adventure.

The gender statistics have also changed. For the twenty- and thirty-something cohorts, the number of men grew dramatically faster than women over the last decade. It’s a modern version of the old saying that for single women in the Yukon “the odds are good, but the goods may be odd.”

And, interestingly, the number of teenagers and forty-somethings actually fell over the last 10 years. This kind of demographic twist, with more older people and fewer in certain younger cohorts, is usually associated with traumas like war. Not many places have seen such a rapid shift in the ratio of young, middle-aged and older citizens.

All of this has significant economic implications. Businesses have to think about what age cohorts their products target. Sixty-somethings are less likely to ski downhill and stay up all night in taverns, and they have different tastes in food, clothing and so on.

Many businesses in the Yukon struggle to find employees. They should now think about this pool of experienced, older workers and how to attract them, as some businesses are already doing. I spoke to one business owner who remarked that older workers were more likely to show up for work and less likely to be hungover or stoned (although today’s senior citizens grew up in the 1960s, so one shouldn’t generalize).

Non-governmental organizations also have an opportunity to tap into a bigger source of experienced, retired or semi-retired people for board and volunteer positions.

The demographic shift also has big implications for the tax and health-care systems. More retired people may mean less tax revenue per citizen, on average, as well as higher health-care costs. Many studies show that people use the health-care system most intensively in their final years.

The increasing number of deaths in the Yukon is, in one way, a sign that the Yukon itself is maturing. Having a balanced population of children, middle-agers and seniors makes for a much healthier and diverse community than we had in the days of ‘98.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.