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Ninety five missing Yukoners

The Western settlement chapter of your typical high school history book is usually based on the assumption of inexorable population growth.

The Western settlement chapter of your typical high school history book is usually based on the assumption of inexorable population growth. Europeans “discover” some piece of territory, conveniently ignoring its existing aboriginal inhabitants, and establish frontier settlements which eventually grow into towns and cities. Statehood or provincial status inevitably follows.

Even places like Upper Canada, which had pretty dismal looking prospects after the American Revolution, can reach escape velocity and grow into self-sustaining jurisdictions. The 6,000 non-aboriginal inhabitants of Upper Canada in 1784 would find re-branded Ontario quite a different place today. Within 60 years of Upper Canada’s official creation it had nearly a million people.

Which brings up last week’s Statistics Canada release of new population estimates for January 1, 2016. The Yukon was the only jurisdiction in Canada to see its population actually go down in the most recent quarter. The decrease was 95 people, or a quarter of one per cent of the population.

It’s not a huge number and we shouldn’t panic. But it does provoke a few reflections about the Yukon’s historical development and how we have several times failed to make the leap Upper Canada, Saskatchewan or Alaska have.

The first Yukon census took place in 1901 and showed our population at 27,219. The Yukon had acquired state-of-the-art railway access, government infrastructure and a sizeable and dynamic population. However, by 1921, the population had fallen by 85 per cent to 4157. Most stampeders ended up going home or bolting for Nome when its gold rush hit the front pages.

Our second chance was World War Two. We got the Alaska Highway, military bases and a population surge. The population nearly doubled between 1941 and 1951, hitting 9,096. Then came the federal “Roads to Resources” program and the great era of post-war economic optimism. By 1971, with the giant Faro mine coming on stream, the population was 18,390.

People thought this was the moment. The Carr Report, a thoughtful long-term economic plan developed by the federal and territorial governments, set out a bold vision: a thriving economy offering lead, zinc, coal and iron ore to markets in the U.S. and Japan, backed by growing tourism and service sectors. The population scenario had 57,000 people living in the Yukon by 1985.

This optimism got crushed by the 1970s oil embargo, stagflation and general economic mayhem. The Alaska Highway gas pipeline project was shelved. In 1982, the Faro mine closed. By 1986, the population was less than half what the Carr Report had expected.

By 1996 the population had crept up to 30,766, thanks in large part to our growing transfer payment. Then the Faro mine closed again, this time for good, and the mining sector in general hit some tough times. The Alaska Highway gas pipeline, which would have been a huge project, revived briefly but didn’t go anywhere. The population took another hit, with over 2,000 Yukoners leaving between 1996 and 2001.

The third big chance was the global commodity super-cycle that started around 2003. Copper prices, for example, went from around 70 US cents in 2003 to well over US$4 in 2011. Other metals went up similar amounts. Oil was over US$100 per barrel.

This was a once-in-an-economic-lifetime chance for the Yukon to attract billions in investment and thousands of new inhabitants.

It didn’t work out that way, again. Next year, we are likely to have zero operating hard-rock mines. Our oil and gas output will also be in the vicinity of zero. Statistics Canada estimates our population was 37,193 on New Year’s Day. This is 20,000 fewer than the Carr Report forecast for 1985.

Some people are probably happy to hear the population is going down. They have to share the Yukon with fewer people. But a flat or shrinking population has significant downsides. Government revenue shrinks, putting pressure on health and education programs. People who have jobs tend to stay in them, meaning that the next generation can’t find work at home and have to move Outside. Businesses decide to invest in places with growth. Lots of talented people who would have volunteered in our community groups and started new Yukon institutions end up living somewhere else.

It’s a sad prospect. Unlike 50 states and 10 provinces on this continent, will we be stuck forever as a small territory with a shaky economy dependent on federal handouts?

The good news is that, unlike in the 1920s or 1970s, we now have responsible government in the Yukon. We can pull levers we couldn’t pull before. This probably means hoping that the mining and energy industries will play a big role in our economy in the future, but having a Plan B in case they don’t. That Plan B would involve attracting lots of people to live here through lower taxes, cheap land and housing, reasonably-priced electricity as well as a good education system and competitive air links.

We probably need to put even more effort into marketing the Yukon as a place to live than we do as a place to visit.

In the age of Internet work and the gig economy, and given how great the Yukon is as a place to live, it shouldn’t be too hard to attract a few thousand new Yukoners from around Canada and the world. That would be the equivalent of a half dozen mines that were explored but never opened during the commodity super-cycle over the last decade.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.