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Yukonomist: We’re all in this together

We need to do better than the way the male candidate for the crown was treated

You could’ve been a contender. I know you’re thinking about it.

Hairiest leg contest? The chainsaw chuck? Or maybe the neighbours would nominate the furriest member of your family for the Dog Howling Contest.

Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous just wrapped up. If you missed any of the events, I suggest you go on Instagram and flip through the photos. The snaps capture a lot of fun and friendship, just what we need after an old-time winter cold snap.

Kudos to the organizers and volunteers who made it happen.

Some people say that Whitehorse has become increasingly vanilla as the population has grown. Jim Robb’s Colourful Five Per Cent has, according to this view, become the Colourful Half A Per Cent.

But Rendezvous has emerged as a time to let your leg hair down and have some fun. This is wonderful.

Rendezvous still has many of the classics I remember from childhood, such as the parade and whipsawing. They still have the speed swede saw contest, sponsored by Builder’s Supplyland. The Keystone Kops continue to rattle around town with that ancient black van and their wheeled cage of ridicule.

But the festival has also been updated. The Queen Contest no longer has all the contestants wearing Klondike ball gowns, petticoats and feather tiaras. Many proudly wear First Nations regalia instead. The entire event has been renamed as the Quest for the Crown, open to men and transgender Yukoners as well as women. Then there’s the Aurora Colour Wars, which is inspired by the Holi festival in India where participants throw brightly coloured dust in a festive frenzy. The Mad Trapper can also be Madam Trapper. And Antoinette’s Restaurant sponsors the “For the Love of Drag” event.

Clearly, Rendezvous has come a long way since your grandparents slapped a dollar down on the bar for two Old Style Pilsners and watched the inaugural Queen Contest in 1945.

This is a good thing. The Yukon has changed dramatically in the last 75 years, but in the North it still remains important that we come together and act like a small, tight-knit community. We don’t have gated communities here, and the Yukoner who helps you jump start your vehicle may be an old-timer or a newcomer from Toronto or Manila. They may be gay or straight, or identify themselves by a gender that’s not on their birth certificate.

Statistics Canada says that a quarter of the Yukon’s population growth is due to international immigration, and half of it due to immigration from other parts of Canada. That means that over 60 per cent of Yukoners were not born here. Around a quarter of the population is indigenous. Over 10 per cent of Yukoners told the Census their ethnic origins included Asia, Africa, Latin America or Oceania. The list of countries is truly global. Reliable statistics on sexual orientation and transgender Yukoners are harder to find, but you can be assured they are a sizable part of our community.

A friend of mine in Delhi was surfing Youtube and noticed one of the trending videos in Urdu was of Gurdeep Pandher teaching Bhangra dancing to a diverse group of other Yukoners. My friend remarked how lucky we are to live in such a tolerant and welcoming community.

Except when it’s not. You may have seen the sad news in last week’s Yukon News that Cameron Penner, a male candidate in the Quest for the Crown, had dropped out due to “bullying and harassment while trying to sell raffle tickets.” The online social media swamp was particularly toxic.

Penner was the only male Crown competitor and was running as “Mr. Bra Boutique.” His charity was Karen’s Fund, which supports Yukoners suffering from cancer. It’s namesake, Karen Wiederkehr, died of breast cancer in 2000 and inspired Karen’s Room, the chemotherapy suite at Whitehorse hospital. Untold numbers of Yukoners, including this columnist, have benefited from having their chemotherapy sessions in Whitehorse rather than a far-away Vancouver hospital room. Penner was also trying to raise awareness of men’s breast cancer, which had affected several members of his family.

A minority of Yukoners and online trolls reacted to Penner’s initiative and generosity by publicly shaming him so vocally that he dropped out.

This is awful. Are these people pro-cancer? Do they take pride in mocking and hurting other people? Are they so fixated on 1950s gender roles that having a man sell raffle tickets in a contest formerly known as “Queen” represents something so terrible that they just had to intervene?

If they are so old school, I have an old school suggestion. Next time they say something this mean, their grandmother should wash out their mouths with soap (and take away their internet privileges).

There is a wise old saying that helps communities get along: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut.”

It was great to see a large number of Yukoners jump up in Penner’s defense. Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous was particularly strong, saying that “If it is your belief that someone should not be able to participate in one of our programs due to race, gender, height, sexual preference or any other arbitrary factor, then we would like to respectfully inform you that we are not the festival for you.”

As we are all members of the Yukon community, there is also a role for you here. If one of your friends or kids was among the bullies, you should talk to them. If it was one of your parents, ditto.

In the meantime, I salute Cameron Penner for entering the Quest for the Crown, and Bra Boutique for sponsoring him. I’m making a donation to Karen’s Fund in their honour.

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.