World War I conference adds to Yukon history

Every province across the country (except Quebec) has made World War I part of the curriculum; we commemorate Remembrance Day as a national holiday and the poppy is a universally understood symbol across the land.

Every province across the country (except Quebec) has made World War I part of the curriculum; we commemorate Remembrance Day as a national holiday and the poppy is a universally understood symbol across the land. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” may be known by more people than any other verse in the nation.

According to scholar and award-winning author Tim Cook, Canadians probably know more about the Great War (1914-1918) than any other event in Canadian history.

Cook should know; as adjunct research professor at Carleton University, and curator for the permanent gallery at the Canadian War Museum, Cook is Canada’s pre-eminent World War I historian. Yet books on Yukon history do not deal with this crucial turning point.

That is changing, thanks in part to the “The North and World War I” conference which Cook opened last week in Whitehorse. Sponsored jointly by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA), Yukon College and the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan, the conference was a week-long festival of speakers and special events.

The week began with a workshop at the Yukon Transportation Museum on “cultural organizations and traumatic events,” given by Sarah Murray, curatorial manager of the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, where they recently experienced the trauma of a series of major earthquakes.

While not exclusively focused upon the Yukon, more than half of the speakers at the conference gave talks directly related to this area. Well-known historian and native son, Ken Coates noted that the war was a turning point in Yukon history, after which the federal government pretty much turned its back on the citizens of this isolated corner of the country for two decades.

I provided an overview of the war from the opening chapter in August 1914 to its commemoration after war’s end. Sally Robinson, a historian and the president of YHMA, talked about events that occurred leading up to and during the war years on the home front. Kathy Gates expanded upon that theme, by tracking the patriotic work of Martha Black in the Yukon and overseas during the war years.

Several individuals were singled out for their wartime accomplishments. Professor Emeritus Ted Cowan of the University of Glasgow talked about the wartime poetry of the Yukon’s own Robert Service; and independent researcher Dr. William Stewart tracked the wartime record of Sam Steele, the Mountie who, during the gold rush of two decades before, had shepherded thousands of stampeders safely to the Klondike.

Joe Boyle was the focus of attention by more than one speaker at the conference. Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser championed the remarkable accomplishments of Boyle, the “King of the Klondike.” If Fraser has his way, Boyle’s story will soon be the subject of a documentary film. Fraser also expounded on the personal relationship between Boyle and Marie, Queen of Romania.

Dr. Crina Bud, lecturer of Romanian language and history at York University, revealed Boyle’s diplomatic strategy on behalf of war-stricken Romania, and the enduring influence his actions had on its foreign affairs after the war. Meanwhile, Cameron Pulsifer, a curator emeritus at the Canadian War Museum, traced the path of the machine gun battery sponsored by Boyle from Dawson City to the battle of the Somme.

Former Yukoner Tim Popp gave an informative talk about the badges and medals unique to the men from the Yukon, with special attention paid to those of Joe Boyle.

David Neufeld, retired Parks Canada historian for the Yukon and Western Arctic, talked about “The Great War and the foundation of Yukon tourism,” tracing the voyages of two travellers from the post-war era, and exploring his own family roots. Former Yukoner David Leverton, now the executive director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, gave a stirring presentation about the tragic sinking of the passenger ship Princess Sophia, as the centenary of the event (October 25, 1918) rapidly approaches.

The substance of the 24 papers given during the conference are slated to be published online by the Yukon College’s Northern Review sometime this fall, and thus the story of the Yukon, and the North, during the Great War will begin to be unfold.

During the three days of talks at the High Country Inn, delegates were treated to a special presentation of wartime newsreels that were excavated from permafrost in Dawson City in 1978.

The late afternoon of Tuesday, May 10, the Yukon Archives unveiled a new travelling exhibit on “The Yukon and World War I” at the Roundhouse on the waterfront. This excellent exhibit, which was researched and designed by Patricia Halladay, and will tour the territory over the next few months, opened Saturday at the Legion in Dawson City.

The exhibit launch was followed by a Royal Canadian Legion memorial at the cenotaph in front of City Hall, where the names of the nearly 100 Yukoners, who died in service during the war, were read aloud. This ritual was repeated at the cenotaph beside the Dawson City Museum on Saturday morning during the study tour to the Klondike capital.

To wrap up the proceedings in Whitehorse on Thursday evening, May 12, conference delegates, joined by the public, packed the convention centre for a historically-themed dinner-theatre. Titled “Dawson to Berlin: A Romanian love story,” the theatrical portion of the evening consisted of a three-act performance of music and dance, themed around the romance of Joe Boyle and Marie, the queen of Romania. Featured artists included Dale Cooper, Grant Hartwick, Shauna Jones, Grant Simpson, Steve Slade, the Frantic Follies Dancers and the Roma Swing Ensemble from Vancouver, with a special guest appearance by Yukon troubadour Hank Karr.

The study tour to Dawson City that followed the conference included tours of the museum (where a short presentation was given on the link between artifacts and the story of World War I), Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site (built in 1913 by Joe Boyle), Bear Creek (where Boyle lived while in the Yukon), and St. Paul’s Church (where various memorials from the war are on display).

The Royal Canadian Legion of Dawson City sponsored a lunch for the study group on Saturday May 14, and the IODE hosted a tea in the afternoon on the verandah of the commissioner’s residence under post card perfect skies. Dawson was opening for the season, so there was plenty to do in the evenings, and everybody who participated had a marvelous time.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at