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Yukonomist: Riverdale time capsule

There was a newspaper from 1980 hidden in the wall

We were renovating a Riverdale kitchen the other day and struck gold.

Not real gold, like the guy I met at a party a couple of years ago who showed me the real 99.99 per cent pure one-ounce Maple Leaf gold coin he found during a renovation.

Our gold was more metaphorical, unfortunately. But interesting, all the same. Behind the drywall, we found a pristine copy of the Yukon News, dated Wednesday Feb. 20, 1980.

The top story gives a dramatic account of the previous night, when veteran MP Erik Nielsen barely defeated feisty insurgent Ione Christensen by just 61 votes. The results hinged on the votes from Old Crow, but the satellite phones were down and everyone had to wait until the RCMP sent the results by radio late in the evening.

The population was much smaller then, with the final results being 3906 votes for Nielsen and 3845 for Christensen. The NDP came in third with 1918 votes.

The editorial fretted that the Yukon was stuck with an opposition Conservative MP who would be ignored by Prime Minister Trudeau.

Little did they know in 1980 that one election later Nielsen would be deputy prime minister in Mulroney’s cabinet, where he would push through the territorial formula finance deal that transmogrified the territorial government into the billion-dollar darling we all know and love today.

The next headline is more prosaic, and could be on the front page of the Yukon News any year: “Federal-territorial deal to fight ‘boom and bust.’” The quaint part about this story is that the deal provides only $6 million, the kind of cheque a modern deputy minister wouldn’t even get out of the hot tub to pick up.

Another headline reported that the Faro mine made $31 million in profits in 1979, up from $6 million the year before. The mine was building a new subdivision for more workers, and preparing to expand into the Grum and Vangorda deposits.

In further proof that the Yukon News writers of the day didn’t have magical futurology powers (a good reminder for current columnists), the article doesn’t mention that Grum and Vangorda would help the Faro mine become a colossal environmental black hole that will cost many times the 1979 profits to clean up over the next 500 years.

The edition is even a double time capsule, since it contains a wistful story about the retirement of longtime highways engineer Ken Baker (complete with photo of him with a prize grayling). He remembered when the Yukon department of roads, bridges and public works had three employees and a budget of less than a million dollars back in 1955.

I compared the 1980 edition to last Friday’s Yukon News. Both had about 30 pages, but the 1980 pages were literally twice as big. The font is the same, but the old one had more space between paragraphs. It also had bigger, more eye-catching ads, including a classic ad entitled “The taste says it all” featuring a drawing of a stubby bottle of O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock.

However, the old version had fewer photos and no colour.

The price was 25 cents or 79 cents in today’s money, versus the $1 price of today’s edition.

The paper is a relic of the pre-internet age. It has ads for everything from High Test to pre-formed sluice box sections: 2’, 3’ and 4’ sections available, with punch plate and expanded grating!

The grocery and appliance ads also tell us something important. Food and household gear was a lot more expensive back in the day, before the aesthetically challenged but much more efficient big-box stores opened here. Nabob coffee was $3.29 a pound, or $22.78 per kilo in today’s money. Last Friday’s paper advertised President’s Choice coffee for $9.67 a kilo.

Steak was much more prominent in the ads than today’s flyers, which are cluttered with hummus and organic soyburgers. Sirloin tip was $3.39 a pound, or $23.47 a kilo after inflation. Today’s price is just $8.80 a kilo.

Canned pop is also much cheaper today. A case of 24 cost $6.99 in 1980, or $22.00 in today’s cash. A pack of 20 cans of Coke cost $7.99 in last Friday’s paper, or $5.99 on special offer.

Apples were $3.42 a kilo in today’s money. Kiwis and mangoes were not mentioned.

In another sign that civilizational norms are evolving, evaporated milk featured prominently in the 1980 ads. I couldn’t even find evap listed in last week’s flyers. It was on sale in 1980 for 50 cents per can, just the kind of basic necessity grocery stories used as a loss leader to lure in the shoppers.

Fridges at the Bay cost from $447 to $597. The cheapest model would be $1406 adjusted for inflation, while a low-end model in the Brick’s flyer last week was $895.

So if older Yukoners sometimes shout at you for dropping a steak into the coals or carelessly slamming the fridge door, you’ll know why.

The TV schedule is also a shocker for today’s Netflix generation. There was one channel. The Friendly Giant started the day’s programming at 945am weekdays, with the CBC providing some free babysitting for tired parents by offering Polka Dot Door at 830am on Sundays. The fun ended at 1am on Friday night, when Charlie’s Angels wrapped up.

We had a lot of fun flipping through our time capsule copy of the Yukon News. I recommend ripping out some of your own drywall to see what you’ll find, or maybe just visiting the archives and looking at the old versions on microfiche.

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 and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.