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Whitehorse time machine

Yukon’s capital added 10,000 people over the last three decades, no YESAB application needed

There’s been a lot of talk about how much harder it is to get a mine permitted today than in the past. The debate rages, with one side pointing to past disasters such as the Faro mine while others ask whether Kaminak’s 19,000-page YESAB application might be overkill.

In case you’re wondering, if you faxed Kaminak’s application on one of those old-fashioned fax machines with the rolls of paper, the document would be 5.3 kilometres long.

Similar amounts of paper have been consumed debating the pros and cons of other mining projects, not to mention all the trees that died during the Peel debate.

But whatever is putting the brakes on development in the Yukon, there is one project that seems impervious: Whitehorse.

If you look at Google Earth’s nifty time-lapse satellite imagery from 1984 to today, you see the city steadily expanding, eating away at the green on the screen. It’s like a strangely unstoppable alien blob, relentlessly blotting out the hapless spruce trees in its path.

First there’s the sudden appearance of Granger, then various neighbourhoods around Copper Ridge. Eventually Whistle Bend materializes. Mount Sima and the nearby new subdivision are suddenly there, visible from space. The big box retailers appear on the old swamp near Spook Creek.

But there is also a lot of growth outside these major developments, both inside and outside official city limits. Areas such as Marwell, McCrae and the airport business zone all show steady infill and expansion. New access roads creep into the forest like tendrils. Zooming in on downtown reveals lots of new construction, particularly at the north end around Shipyards Park and the condos behind Boston Pizza. The dump oozes outwards as forest disappears. Even the residents of the cemetery needed more space.

This shows the power of incremental growth. There was never a big strategy document or YESAB application proposing that Whitehorse be doubled in size, complete with public consultations, court cases, lobbyists and Outside environmental funds joining in. The population was around 15,000 in the mid-1980s when the Google satellite photos start. Now we’ve added around another 10,000 people to the capital city, something that probably has a bigger environmental effect than the Kaminak mine.

Of course, there is an Official Community Plan, but it only has scenarios and not specific proposed population levels (the scenarios range from 25,100 Whitehorsians to 46,500 by 2031). And there were various building permits required and other regulatory forms to fill in over the years. But Whitehorse is what consultants would call a platform for growth. Building a new city somewhere else would probably be impossible these days, but there is little to stop Whitehorse from growing a few per cent a year for decades if people want to move here.

And if you grow at two per cent per year for 35 years, you double in size.

One can debate whether this would be good or bad, or whether our growing transfer payment or our enviable lifestyles will be able to attract that many people to move here.

The key point is that it has become relatively difficult to grow new economic activity outside Whitehorse, but we have set up Whitehorse as a place where growth is relatively easy.

Compare “non-metropolitan” Yukon to the kinds of economic engines one finds in rural Alaska or northern Finland or Norway. We live in an area the size of France, with great geology, and have one operating mine, zero operating oil and gas wells, minimal forestry activity, no big military bases and only small (but high quality) academic research stations. A relatively small percentage of our tourists go more than an hour’s drive from the Alaska Highway.

The population of the Yukon outside Whitehorse has been roughly flat since the 1950s at around 10,000 people.

There are a few potential responses to this. The bureaucratic response would be to equalize the situation by putting development around Whitehorse through the 19,000-page process also. This would be like Banff, where you have a city tightly constrained by surrounding park. It’s a very nice place to live, but growth is steered to other places in Canada.

If you did this in the Yukon, the result would likely be even higher housing prices in Whitehorse with fewer people moving to the Yukon over the long run.

The reverse would be to create development zones, sort of the opposite of the now highly protected Peel Watershed. These are regions where the Yukon government and First Nations would agree to support faster and bigger economic development, perhaps supplemented with teams to actively help companies navigate approvals processes as well as tax breaks and subsidies.

This pro-growth approach would face tough political sledding.

The path of least resistance is the status quo. That probably means more incremental growth in Whitehorse, which will please some people but not others. In either case, you’ll be able to watch Google Earth in a few years for more spruce trees biting the dust around Whitehorse.

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 is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.