If you are like most Yukoners, you probably didn’t realize it was Yukon Day until June 13 was already over.
June 13, for those without a handy copy of Stephen Smyth’s The Yukon Chronology, is the day in 1898 that the federal government’s Yukon Territory Act carved our territory out of the Northwest Territories. According to the Yukon Day Act, passed in Whitehorse a century later in 1998, June 13 “shall be a day on which the citizens of the Yukon are encouraged to reflect on the history and heritage of their land and its peoples.”
The legislature made an outing down the river to the old capital to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Yukon Territory Act, but even the government press release forgot to mention it was actually “Yukon Day.”
Which is okay. Indigenous Peoples Day a week later was a much bigger celebration, and appropriately so. As participants will have seen, it celebrates Yukon First Nations people in a modern and positive way.
The annals of Yukon history are full of dates where faraway colonial administrators moved lines on maps that people here didn’t learn about until years later, if they ever did.
Like July 15, 1870, when Canada bought what is now the Yukon from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
We don’t actually know the day when the Yukon became part of the HBC’s landholdings in British North America. King Charles II granted the company a commercial monopoly over Rupert’s Land in 1670, but this only applied to the watersheds of rivers draining into Hudson’s Bay. The vast lands to the west, including the Yukon, were just blank spots on European maps.
Some 170 years later, HBC found its way to the Yukon and established a trading post at Fort Selkirk. At some point in between, HBC seems to have just assumed it also controlled what is now the Yukon. Up to the border with Russian Alaska, that is. Diplomatic negotiators in St. Petersburg defined this in 1825 (but so vaguely that it was the subject of much dispute during the gold rush).
Fast forward to the 1860s in London, where enthusiastic British Empire boosters were full of talk about settlement and business opportunities in the region. According to a recent paper by Frank Tough, this prompted the HBC governor to remark, “If these gentlemen are so patriotic, why don’t they buy us out?”
Sensing an opportunity for an epic real-estate flip, some wily bankers in London acquired a majority stake in HBC in 1863. The company’s charter had much more valuable rights, including land ownership, than similar companies in other parts of the Empire.
Then, in 1867, four British colonies in North America were reorganized into the Dominion of Canada and its provinces. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was soon in negotiations with HBC.
In an 1870 deal brokered by the imperial government in London, Canada bought out HBC for £300,000. That was about $1.5 million at the time. The price works out to the bargain-basement price of 19 cents per square kilometre. The Russians charged about 20 times more per square kilometre when they sold Alaska to the Americans.
The Yukon represents about six per cent of the land purchased, which would translate to $90,000 of the original $1.5-million purchase. That’s about $4.5 million in today’s money.
Think about that. The entire Yukon sold for the equivalent of four Whitehorse penthouse condos.
Queen Victoria signed off and, on July 15, 1870, what is now the Yukon came under Canadian ownership.
First Nations people were not consulted. Prime Minister Macdonald wrote to a friend at the time, saying “All these poor people know is that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson’s Bay Company and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us.”
The London bankers were no doubt devastated to learn 28 years later how much gold was under the Klondike land they sold. Stampeders were pulling out 19 cents per pan, not per square kilometre. This gets us to June 13, 1898, when the feds split off the Yukon Territory from the rest of the Northwest Territories.
The recent government press release refers to June 13 as the day the Yukon “joined Confederation.”
That’s a bit of a stretch, although it does sound nicer than the day Yukoners “were the subject of an administrative reorganization over which they had no vote.”
We are lucky that our foundational events are so boring. We didn’t have to live through the kind of bloody revolution or civil war that is behind holidays in many other places.
But it does raise the question of what is next. Could there someday be a Yukon-themed historical event that would be sufficiently inspirational that, unlike Yukon Day, we might actually celebrate it?
The Yukon becoming a province is a possibility. That would definitely be one for the history books. But as many in my History 12 class at F.H. Collins will recall, the problem with history is that it takes a long time.
And we don’t have a long time to solve our rapidly approaching holiday gap. New Yukon statutory holidays for Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21) and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (Sept. 30) are important additions to our public calendar. But there remains the fact that there is not a single long weekend in the long summer stretch between Canada Day and Discovery Day.
What we need, right now, is for the Yukon to become a province on the last Friday in July.
Absurd, say the constitutional lawyers. Don’t you know that any four provinces can veto the Yukon’s bid? Hogwash, say the economists. The territorial transfer formula is far more generous than what Prince Edward Island gets from the feds. Premature, say the demographers. Saskatchewan had five times more people when it became a province.
But why let reality get in the way of our dreams?
I recommend that we get ahead of history and declare the last Friday of July to be Future Yukon Province Day. If the government doesn’t get around to declaring a new long weekend in the next few weeks, you should just print some custom shirts and celebrate it yourself.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.