While the history of the Yukon is filled with lore from the Klondike Gold Rush, and the impact of the building of the Alaska Highway has been studied extensively, other aspects of Yukon history remain unexplored territory. One of these is the First World War.
Aside from some chapters from the autobiography of Martha Black, there is not one book or article that describes the wartime conditions in the Yukon; there is nothing that reveals what happened to the men and women who went overseas during these troubled times.
“World War I provided the Far North with an opportunity to demonstrate their value and commitment to their countries. Little did they know that their contribution would carry such a high cost,” says Ken Coates at the University of Saskatchewan.
“If you ask Northern Canadians about this time period, you find that very little is actually know,” he adds. All of that is about to change.
A conference titled “The North in World War I,” taking place in Whitehorse and Dawson City from May 9 to 15, explores the events and the people related to the northern regions during the “Great War” for the first time.
The conference is the brainchild of the Yukon Historical and Museums Association, Yukon College and the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan. A dedicated committee of volunteers has been working for a couple of years to focus attention on this little-known chapter of northern history.
Guided by program chairmen Brent Slobodin and Ken Coates, the conference has arranged an impressive lineup of speakers for the three days of presentations.
Tim Cook, the director of research at the Canadian War Museum, and acknowledged authority on Canada’s involvement in World War I, will kick off the program. Cook has written several comprehensive – and very readable – books about the “Great War.” Cook is the 2013 recipient of the 2013 Pierre Berton Award (Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media). He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in December of 2014.
Award-winning author Mark Zuehlke, who was in Whitehorse in November to launch his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat, will be back to tell us about Cy Peck and the Prince Rupert Company in the Great War.
Other speakers include Cameron Pulsifer, also of the Canadian War Museum, who will present the story of Joe Boyle’s highly decorated Yukon Machine Gun Battery, and Dr. Edward Cowan, University of Glasgow, who will tell us about Robert Service’s war poetry.
Sam Steele, the Lion of the North, will be recognized for his wartime activities; David Leverton of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia will address the sinking of the Princess Sophia at war’s end. Joe Boyle’s remarkable diplomatic strategy during the war will be presented by Dr. Crina Bud, of York University. Tim Popp, of the Fred Light Museum Advisory Committee, will inform us about Yukon military medals and badges awarded to the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Adding to the international flavour of the conference will be speakers from Sweden, New Zealand, and the United States. Several students will be contributing papers, including Nick Gillen, a product of Vanier Secondary School who is now at St. Francis Xavier University, who will speak about trench culture in Great Britain and Germany.
Yukon historians will be well represented, including Sally Robinson (the Home Front), David Neufeld (The Great War and the Foundations of the Tourism Industry) and Kathy Gates (Martha Black during the war). I will speak about the Yukon and World War I, which is the topic of my new book, scheduled to be released in the spring of 2017. Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser will speak about “Celebrating Yukon’s Heroes of the First World War.”
For those who have an interest in Yukon history, the Wednesday afternoon sessions at the High Country Inn will be filled exclusively with Yukon content, although Yukon topics will be well distributed throughout the three days.
But speakers are only part of the attraction of this event. A museum workshop on Cultural Organizations and Traumatic Events will be held at the Yukon Transportation Museum on Monday, May 9.
The Friends of the Yukon Archives Society and Yukon Archives will host a reception at the Roundhouse from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10, at which they will launch a new mobile exhibit on the Yukon and World War I. Included will be panels that gathered together the names of those who served, and another with those who died while serving.
Following the reception, at 7 p.m. the Royal Canadian Legion will hold a memorial ceremony at the Cenotaph in front of city hall to honour the Yukon fallen from World War I.
The conference will wrap up with a gala evening of storytelling, musical theatre and culinary delights on Thursday. This event is open to the public.
From May 13 to 15, a study tour is planned to Dawson City for the weekend, with transportation, accommodation and a lively program of tours and presentations about Dawson City’s total involvement in the war. The Dawson City Museum is planning a presentation that will link artifacts from their collection to the story of the war.
In 1978, the museum was involved in the recovery of a horde of silent movies buried in permafrost at Queen Street and Fifth Avenue. Some of the rare footage recovered includes wartime newsreels that were shown in theatres in Dawson City at the time. A small selection of these will be incorporated into the Saturday presentation.
The conference will be a total package of events and speakers that will fill some of the blank pages in the book of Yukon history.
If you are interested in learning more about the conference, visit the Yukon Historical and Museums Association website at heritageyukon.ca and follow the prompts. You can register online. In fact, if you register before April 5, you will enjoy the benefit of the early-bird rates. Those who want to attend the gala evening event on Thursday, May 12, can also reserve their place online at the same location mentioned above. For anybody interested in Yukon history, this conference is a must-see.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org