‘I wasn’t one of those kids who left Watson Lake never to return,” says Thomas Slager. “I can’t remember ever wanting to live anywhere else. I told my Grade 11 teacher that one day I would have his job.”
Born in Whitehorse and raised in Watson Lake with two younger sisters, Slager is happy to reminisce about his early youth in this community.
“There was a little gang of us, a brotherhood. It was comforting, that sense of family and commitment; it was a feeling that permeated the town back then.
We looked up to the older kids; we aspired to be like them because they were like, ‘This is the Watson Lake way’ and we wanted to know it,” says Slager. “We were Jedi Knights in training. I think we were the last generation of kids from this town who ‘got it,’ and the ‘it’ is hard to explain.”
It was a great childhood for Slager. He played hockey, wrestled, was in the drama club and was president of the school council.
They built tree forts, the last one having some luxuries like a wood stove, and bunk beds. (“Hey, Dad! Now I can tell you that’s where all your missing tools went – the hammers and the axes.”) They would melt snow in an old pot to cook Ichiban soups and Kraft Dinners.
Slager was chosen to attend leadership conferences, saying the truly valuable learning he got from these events was in meeting other people who taught him not to be afraid to take risks.
“You never know what you can do until you try,” became a motto Slager still lives by.
His parents divorced when he was 15, with his mother leaving the three kids with their father.
The shock of being a whole family one day and a motherless family the next had a deep and lasting effect.
“She was not just my mom, she was my best friend,” Slager says. “I felt abandoned twice over and it took years before I could even speak to her again.”
He went to university because, “In my family that is what you did,” he says. “It wasn’t a question of, ‘Should I go or shouldn’t I go.’ By Grade 8, you knew you had to get the marks to go to university.”
Families with those sorts of expectations, that willingness to support further education, seemed to be more numerous in the town back then.
Slager graduated in a class of 15 students, 12 of whom now have degrees.
The choosing of a university was a time when a guidance counselor in Watson Lake secondary school would have been useful, he says.
“I chose Concordia (University College) in Edmonton because I liked the name,” Slager says. “I picked it out of a magazine and didn’t know it was a Lutheran school. I was boarded in the basement of a priest who drove me to and from classes, lecturing me the entire time. I cracked after a couple of months and called my dad from the bus stop, crying.”
Back in Watson Lake, he worked until fall and then headed back to school, this time choosing more carefully.
He attended Mount Royal in Calgary for two years, and then, determining on a teaching career, he went to Lethbridge University for three years, the latter chosen for its small town atmosphere.
He left with a BA and his future wife.
He met Leazel in Lethbridge, courting her until she capitulated and agreed to move in with him. At the time marriage was an issue for Slager; the divorce of his parents had left him commitment-shy, but the couple did eventually tie the knot.
They went to Edmonton next, where Slager got his BE. He brought his new degree home and got a job at the Johnson Elementary School. Both he and Leazel had been coming to Watson Lake every summer to work and save money for school; now they were going to make their home here.
At first Leazel wasn’t entirely comfortable in the little town, feeling as if she didn’t fit in. Things are different now.
“Watson Lake is like a spider web; you get caught and you can’t leave, but soon you don’t want to leave.”
For two people who claim to hate winter, Slager goes on to describe how much he and his wife enjoy ice-fishing, snowmobiling and skiing.
“You know the very best day of the year in Watson Lake?” he asks. “It’s the day you walk out the door and finally you can smell something other than wood smoke. Then you know winter is over.”
He confesses some disillusionment when he first began his life here as a teacher and a young family man.
“I had this romantic notion of Watson Lake from my childhood,” says Slager. “I was frustrated to find I couldn’t get people to help with things like coaching hockey. The volunteer pool in town seems to have dried up, and that is not the only change I’ve noticed. I blame it partly on TV and video games. The kids now have those things and yet they are often claiming boredom. I don’t remember ever being bored as a kid; there was so much to do.
“In this community now we need to have purpose, pride and hope. Those are the things that create the feeling of togetherness in a town.”
He loves his job; he believes in it.
“I know there are those kids who feel they are so far behind they may as well give up and the only effort they will make in school is to get the teacher to acknowledge they really are hopeless and kick them out. They need teachers who say, ‘I know what you are feeling, and that you think you can only get expelled, but I am not going to let you do that; I am not going to give up on you.’”
Obviously, Slager is staying. He and Leazel have two children now, Max is three and Sophie is two, and they are likely to love their town as much as their parents do.
That love of place is fostered by the family holiday cabin, about two hours north of Watson Lake. It has been in Slager’s family since 1978 and is a huge part of the family and their connection to this particular area of the Yukon.
“We’re stewards of that land,” Slager says. “We look after it; no soap has ever gone into that lake, and any fish caught that weigh over two pounds gets tossed back in to make more fish. We all love the cabin; it’s the only thing in the north my sisters miss, and when they visit, that’s where they want to go. It’s my Zen place, where everything gets figured out.”
As to the future, Slager is clear.
“I will be principal of the school in time,” he says. “Then I will run for MLA; after that, who knows?”
Tor Forsberg is a Watson
Lake-based freelance writer.