A brief history of the North

A security and terrorism specialist has turned his attention to the Yukon. But not because of any terrorist threat. Ed Whitcomb is passionate about history - specifically Canadian provincial history.

A security and terrorism specialist has turned his attention to the Yukon.

But not because of any terrorist threat.

Ed Whitcomb is passionate about history – specifically Canadian provincial history.

And in retirement, the former federal government senior analyst for security and terrorism politics for South Asia has started writing a short history of nearly every province.

In his latest book, Whitcomb tackled the North, lumping all three territories together to tell the story of everything North of 60 in less than 60 pages.

“Part of the feedback I get is that the price is right and the length is right,” he said. “If you get in an airplane you can read this by the time you get to where you’re going.”

Whitcomb is equal parts historian and salesman.

After he finished each provincial history, he crisscrossed that province selling the books where he could.

For his latest book, Whitcomb set off alone driving from Ottawa to Yellowknife.

Even destroying his tires en route to the Yukon hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” he said.

The inspiration for this project began more than 40 years ago when Whitcomb moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, to take up a position at St. Francis Xavier University teaching history.

“As soon as I was settled in, I went to the library to get a history of Nova Scotia to find out about my new home, but there wasn’t one,” he said. “For a historian that’s a disappointment, but it’s also a challenge.”

It was a challenge that Whitcomb put off until 1982 when the upcoming centennial of his hometown of Oak Lake, Manitoba gave him a proper deadline.

He borrowed $5,000 and crisscrossed the province selling the books himself.

“That was pretty risky,” he said. “I had no idea whether they’d sell or not.”

But it did sell, and is still being sold in Winnipeg more than 30 years later.

By the time he wrote that first book he had left academia for a job with the Canadian Foreign Service.

With postings in India, Indonesia and Thailand, Whitcomb, who holds a PhD in European history, fashioned himself into an expert on Asia, eventually taking the senior analyst security and terrorism posting in South Asia.

Finishing the Canadian provincial history series was put on the back burner.

But Whitcomb never forgot about the project.

And when Alberta and Saskatchewan’s centennials rolled around, he was inspired again.

He published those two histories in 2005.

Histories of eight other provinces followed.

This year he published the history of Newfoundland and the North.

The only province he has left is Quebec.

For a professional historian who prides himself on his accuracy and impartiality, Quebec poses a challenge.

“The French nationalist interpretation, which is what they’ve been teaching for years, exaggerates how good things were before the English arrived and how bad things have been ever since,” he said.

It’s a problem that he is familiar with.

National histories tend to glorify Confederation and downplay the problems it created for the provinces, said Whitcomb.

“That national interpretation is correct as a national interpretation,” he said. “But if you then look at some of the same issues province by province it becomes different, and that interpretation can be correct within it’s geographic confines.”

Looking at Confederation from a provincial perspective, the story becomes much less rosy.

“Only two provinces joined Canada willingly,” said Whitcomb. “All the other eight plus the North were bought or bribed or tricked or pushed.”

For decades after Confederation there was a mass migration of people out of Canada.

“In places like the Maritimes, it was a tragedy,” he said. “Whole villages lost a very significant portions of their population.

“Newfoundland’s economy stagnated for a century.”

While John A. MacDonald gets lauded for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in most national histories, there’s another side to this story too.

“They put CPR through Regina and Calgary which is not as rich in agricultural land as Saskatoon and Edmonton,” said Whitcomb.

And a lot of trains were lost because they built the railroad through the precariously steep Kicking Horse Pass instead of the more hospitable Yellowhead route, he said.

“Putting the railroad in the South may have put back the development of the prairies by quite a bit.”

Whitcomb is hard pressed to choose a favorite volume of provincial histories.

“Every province, when you delve into it, you’ll find surprising things,” he said. “One thing I knew about the North was the good reputation of the Mounties in the Klondike Gold Rush, but once I started reading about it I was really impressed by just how well they handled, not just the Klondike, but the whole policing of the North.”

In contrast, Whitcomb paints the federal government in less flattering colours during the building of the Alaska Highway.

At that time, in the Yukon, the population of Americans far out numbered Canadians.

“In Whitehorse they didn’t even have enough police to properly control traffic and so the Americans just stepped in,” said Whitcomb. “There was a real threat to sovereignty.

“The Canadian government’s handling of the sovereignty issue is very bad, from beginning to end, throughout the North.”

One of the recurrent themes of this volume is the neglect of the North by the federal government, he said.

“I think it’s important for people to know their history and the North is full of it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful history.”

Contact Josh Kerr at


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