By Doug Sack
It has become painfully obvious to exactly nobody in Whitehorse except me that the Yukon’s capital city has been living a lie for almost 60 years and it is high time something was done to correct what has become a historical absurdity: The name of this town.
As every Yukoner from toddler to elder knows, the town was originally named after the upstream canyon and rapids where the white water resembled the flowing manes of white horses running down the Yukon River, showing the way to the golden treasures of the fabled Klondike.
That was such a beautiful and poetic way to name a place, it all but obliterated a second option, which was that the town was named for Chief White Horse, the leader of a native band living downstream at the head of reasonable navigation.
Although I don’t know where modern historians stand on the chief-versus-horses question – probably not in agreement – I’ve always gone with the horses for the romance of it all and because I’ve only encountered one place in northwestern Canada which was unquestionably named for a great chief.
(That would be Pouce Coupe, B.C., which means “cut thumb,” located ten miles south of Dawson Creek.)
Accordingly, I was waxing eloquently to my seven-year-old grandson recently as we stood on the edge of Miles Canyon and I explained how his hometown got its wonderful name.
“Where are the horses now?” he asked innocently.
“Under the water,” I answered. “When they dammed the river years ago to make electricity, the water came up and…”
“THEY DROWNED THE HORSES?” he exclaimed in shock.
“Well, figuratively, I suppose…”
“WHO DROWNED THE HORSES?”
“Yukon Electric or the government or somebody. They needed electricity at the time and…”
“SO THEY DROWNED ALL THE HORSES?”
“Well, not literally…”
“So our town is named after a bunch of dead horses?”
“They should have called it Deadhorse…” he said with a slight sigh of disgust in his little voice.
And that conversation gave birth to this column. As we carried on with our historical walk, I found myself agreeing with his childish perspective and started thinking of alternative names for Whitehorse, since this community hasn’t seen the flowing mane of a white horse in over half a century and roughly half of its existence.
Here are some candidates for Whitehorse’s badly-needed name change:
Historically accurate to little minds, perhaps, but probably too morbid for tourism marketing purposes. I can see a tour guide at Miles Canyon telling a full busload: “And here is where our forefathers drowned the horses…”
This one has legs and deserves strong consideration.
Ever since Whitehorse morphed from a dirty little railroad town into a riverside garden party with gorgeous hiking, biking, jogging and paved walking paths, southern Yukoners have become ardently mobile like never before.
I even left 20 of my own unwanted pounds on the Millenium Trail this spring and have no hesitation in proclaiming modern day urban Whitehorse as one the more pleasant walking experiences in western Canada, (which will only get better in the future when we teach certain people to stop walking in front of moving vehicles on the streets whether they’ve been drinking or not.)
Young marrieds will vote for this name change, especially my favourites: twenty-something mothers in spandex who sprint after their baby carriages and young fathers pulling toddlers behind their mountain bikes in high-speed chariots. This must be a great age to be in the first demographic (0-5) and Whitehorse should reflect the future rather than the past with its new name.
Since 87 per cent of the Yukon’s territorial budget comes in the form of transfer payments from the federal government in Ottawa and most of that is spent on excessive salaries for Whitehorse bureaucrats, Gifthorse would certainly be an accurate new name but not one with a certain future.
Sooner or later, Canadian taxpayers are going to find out their hard-earned tax dollars are being used to fund organizations that oppose development (especially in mining) and the cake party is going to end.
You can’t accept tax dollars and use them to kill projects that would generate more taxes and jobs to help Canada pay off the national debt.
It’s crazy, like using your credit card to fund your debit card. However, if we start calling this place Gifthorse, it might at least get someone in Ottawa to ask why, and speed up the solution.
Horse With No Name
And this is what Whitehorse will be called in the 22nd century when the bogus entitlement economy collapses, the roads return to gravel, the trees re-take the hiking paths like the old rail lines between here and Carcross, most of the people move to a province or Alaska and the Yukon reverts back to a nice, nostalgic line from a Robert Service poem: “The beauty that thrills me with wonder, the stillness that fills me with peace.”
It will remain a terrific place to be buried.
Or, of course, we can continue to call it Whitehorse and muddle off into the greedy future until the free and easy money runs out.
Perhaps it’s none of my business, but it was a grandson who got me thinking about it in the first place and it’s definitely his business.
Doug Sack was the sports editor of the Yukon News from 1974 through 1984. He is a grandpa who just wants to have fun.