In this episode, we’re commemorating over 125 years of the creation of the Yukon Territory. We speak with Paul Caesar-Jules, a Kaska youth from Watson Lake. He tells us about his work at Liard First Nation’s Language Department, where he digitizes tapes of elders communicating in Dene languages. We also hear from Yukon historian Michael Gates, who takes us back to the 1978 discovery of Hollywood silent films, buried under the permafrost in Dawson City — and what this discovery tells us about the Gold Rush. Finally, we speak with Regional Chief Kluane Adamek. She speaks about the essential role that Indigenous youth play in shaping the future of the Yukon, and about the importance of matrilineal leadership in her community. This podcast receives funding from The Government of Canada and is produced by The Walrus Lab.

Listen to the episode:

Audio clip- Challenge Song – archival audio in Kaska language

Angela Misri: Paul Caesar-Jules gets emotional whenever he hears recordings of his Kaska elders.

Angela Misri: The 26-year-old from Watson Lake, Yukon, learned Kaska from his grandmother and now teaches it. As part of his work at the Liard First Nation’s Language Department, he digitizes tapes of elders communicating in multiple Dene languages…like they do in this song that accompanies hand games.

Paul Caesar-Jules: The challenge song is for the people that are winning. And it’s like for the underdogs to come to play against them. And like they’re singing the challenge song for the underdogs. It’s really awesome just to hear that and like how the drummers get really tired of drumming because it’s really intensive that it’s like a two, two rhythm beat, but it’s just constant. So they just start singing.

Angela Misri: Welcome to Canadian Time Machine, a podcast that unpacks key milestones in our country’s history. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by The Walrus Lab. I’m Angela Misri. In today’s episode, we’re commemorating over 125 years of the creation of the Yukon Territory. In a moment, I’ll speak with Yukon historian Michael Gates, as well as Regional Chief Kluane Adamek, to hear their perspectives on this anniversary. But first, let’s go back to Paul Caesar-Jules, who is dedicated to preserving Kaska precisely because of some of the effects that colonization has had on the language in this time period.

Paul Caesar-Jules: The importance of language preservation and the importance of learning it and teaching it is just to show appreciation of self. One thing I remember the most is that my grandma telling, uh, telling us kids — whatever you do in life, do whatever you want, but don’t lose your identity as a Kaska person.

Angela Misri: Paul’s grandmother’s words came from a place of lived experience…She was taken from her home as a child and sent to a residential school… where she wasn’t allowed to speak her language. Sadly, she wasn’t the only one in Paul’s family who experienced this.

Paul Caesar-Jules: I hear stories from, like, multiple elders saying how they were affected by residential school. It wasn’t really like cool to speak Kaska it was more, like learning English.

Angela Misri: But Paul’s grandmother also remembers celebrating with her community when the federal government lifted the ban on potlatches in 1951…She was just six years old at the time.

Paul Caesar-Jules: The moment they unbanned potlatches, where people were able to express and continue to like practice potlatches and, like, how powerful that is for people to show their appreciation of the culture that they live in. And so, she remembers walking from Francis Lake to Ross River. She just remembers, like, just seeing everyone on this trail that she was walking on, like, expressing, like, singing, dancing, and just, like, playing the drums on the trail, and, like, how, like, how powerful that must be just to, like, witness that at such a young age.

Angela Misri: As Paul continues to learn, teach, and preserve the Kaska language, he hopes to carry forward the legacy that his grandmother taught him, and impart it onto future generations, who can hopefully carry Kaska forward for at least another 125 years…

Paul Caesar-Jules: It’s daunting, but it’s also like a beautiful thing to express, because this is the generation of the grandchildren. Like, I am my grandma’s grandchild. And so it’s just like a lot of burden to be put on, but it’s also really like…to show respect for that, and it’s something I always ponder about thinking younger people, and kids in high school, and like how easy it is for them to adopt Kaska words. I just like to be really optimistic about language preservation and that I don’t think the language is dying anytime soon.

Angela Misri: Paul and his colleagues at Liard First Nation’s Language Department continue to digitize cassette tapes Dene languages including Kaska in an effort to preserve as much of the language as possible.

Angela Misri: Well, my next guest also knows a thing or two about the importance of digitizing files…but in an entirely different context. Writer and historian Michael Gates is the author of several historical books, including “Hollywood in the Klondike: Dawson City’s Great Film Find.” He’s here to tell us about some of the important events that shaped the development of the Yukon in the past 125 years…including the 1978 discovery of of Hollywood silent films, buried under the permafrost in Dawson City. Hello Michael, how are you?

Michael Gates: I’m very good. Thanks, Angela. It’s nice to meet you.

Angela Misri: Nice to meet you as well. So now, before we get into the history of Hollywood in the Klondike, can you please give us a brief overview of the circumstances that led to the Yukon becoming a Canadian territory in 1898?

Michael Gates: The Yukon is the location where the first Canadians resided many thousands of years ago. So it was an occupied land. But, uh, beyond the, uh, the boundaries and far, far away, there were two nation fighting over territory. One was Russia and the other was Britain. And they came to an understanding in 1825 that they would divide up the the land that we now know as Alaska and, uh, Canada.

And they set a line, uh, demarcating the, the boundary. It was the 141st Meridian. Eventually, 1867, Russia sold, uh, Alaska to the United States.

And in 1896, a discovery was made that was so immense that it sparked a Gold Rush, a stampede. And it was a small tributary of the Klondike River that, uh, this discovery was made.

So, uh, overnight, it went from, uh, territory that, uh, was little known by the outside world to becoming the, the central focus of attention for nations around the world. And, uh, a big stampede ensued, and tens of thousands of people headed toward the Klondike, not knowing the conditions that they, they faced when they, they got there.

And so Dawson City was born at the mouth of the Klondike River.

And so that’s, that’s the setting. And you have this town that was rapidly growing. As soon as the ice broke up in the spring of 1898, thousands and thousands of people started to converge on this little community in the middle of what everybody perceived as nowhere.
At the time this was part of what was known as the Northwest Territories, which was a very large chunk of land that included Saskatchewan, Alberta, and, and the Yukon. Immediately, the people in Regina started taking an interest, and they thought, well, we should get some of our officials up there, start collecting duty on liquor, and other such things.

And, uh, at the same time, the Canadian government was aware of what was going on, and, uh, they were sending their own officials in to do much the same thing. So there was, uh, a clash betweenn who’s ground this was, and who had jurisdiction. And that was a big motivator behind the, uh, uh, the crafting of the, the Yukon Act, which came into effect on June 13th, 1898, effectively establishing the federal jurisdiction.

Angela Misri: In addition to the Gold Rush, what have been some of the major developments in the Yukon over the past 125 years?

Michael Gates: Well, of course, the, uh, the Gold Rush sparked it all. It was a time when the population was roughly 25 to 30, 000 people, focused mostly on Dawson City and the, adjacent gold fields.

And over the next, uh, 10 or 12 years, the Gold Rush, uh, uh, faded into the past.

Then, in 1914, war was declared. So the Yukon became involved in the war, and over the next four years, nearly a quarter of the population enlisted and served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force overseas.

So that was a major event, a major impact on the forward motion of the territory, which remained rather quiet for the next 20 years, until theSecond World War occurred, Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and then they started to invade the Aleutian Islands.

Well, something had to be done to, uh, counter this, and, uh, the U. S. government decided that they would build a highway that would link the lower 48 to their, northern territory known as Alaska. And that was the, um, beginning of the Alaska Highway. And, uh, it had, uh, a tremendous impact on the territory, because up until this time, Dawson City had, had been the, uh, capital. The Alaska Highway changed everything. That and, uh, the establishment of a, a major, uh, airfield in Whitehorse. Whitehorse became the transportation hub, and over the next few years, uh, Whitehorse, uh, flourished and grew, and Dawson City languished. So that had a major impact, and eventually they moved the capital in 1953 from Dawson City to Whitehorse.

Angela Misri: Hmm.

Michael Gates: People in Dawson never forgave them for that.

Angela Misri: No. They wouldn’t. No.

Michael Gates: In the next few years, the local community became aware of the fact that the Yukon was still governed from Ottawa. Well, Ottawa had the authority and the power over issues relating to Indian affairs. Now First Nations worked for several years to create a document called Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow. And in 1973, the delegation of Yukon First Nations took that to Ottawa and they presented it to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau entertained them and responded positively and initiated the land claims process, which took place over the next 20 years. So from 1973 to 1993, a lot of negotiation took place between First Nations, the territorial government, and the federal government, working out the details of the Umbrella Final Agreement that dictated the settlement of land claims in the Territory. A big change in that regard was, uh, the implementation of self government for First Nations. So, effectively, here in the Territory, we have a federal, we have territorial, we have municipal, and we have First Nation jurisdictions.

Angela Misri: So, as I alluded to in my introduction, you were part of a group of people who found silent films from the early 1900s buried under the permafrost in Dawson City in 1978. Can you tell us how these films got there?

Michael Gates: It took a little bit of legwork to figure that out. First of all, I’ll tell you how we found them. They were doing some, uh, test excavation. They were going to build a new recreation facility for Dawson. Dawson City rested on permafrost, and that has a real effect on the stability of buildings. The Deputy Mayor was there watching the backhoe operator. So this backhoe was digging. And they started bringing up all kinds of strange material. There were things like broken curling rocks, and skates, and bottles, and chicken wire, and then there were these metal canisters holding rolls of movie filml. Now my first question was, well, is, is, how old are these films? And if they’re, older films, they’re nitrate based.

Nitrate films are flammable, so I took a match and I lit a little piece of this film, and it flared up quite violently, confirming that, uh, this was the nitrate stock. I picked one of these reels up and I started unspooling it and I could see the title of the film.

And a couple of days later I was doing some research, looking at microfilms of the old newspapers, and I found that that film had been shown in Dawson in 1917.

I started making phone calls to see if anybody down east would be interested in this. Finally I was told I should talk to Sam Kula at the National Film Archives.

And when I described what we were uncovering, he was quite interested. He asked for some more information. He responded quite quickly with a note saying he’d be arriving in a few days and to book him a room at a hotel for a couple of nights.

So he flew up in person to look at it and examining the site in situ with these films coming out of the ground, He decided that it would be worth, uh, recover these, salvage them. So, they, uh, they started a contract with the Dawson City Museum.

We got the director of the museum involved, and she took over from that point, and much of my involvement in it ended at that point. But the director of the museum also was a member of the local community newsletter. And, uh, she inserted a little, uh, uh, note in the newsletter saying that we’d found these films and, uh, we were curious as to whether anybody could tell us how they came to be there.

And within a couple of weeks we got a response from a fellow in Vancouver, who admitted that he was responsible for burying these films.
To understand why they got buried, you have to understand that Dawson, uh, after the Gold Rush, became a bit of a, I hate to use the word backwater, but, uh, it, uh, it was, uh, no longer the, uh, you know, the epicenter of, uh, current affairs.

So, the silent films, uh, went through the, the circuit down south and then it’s, their final destination was Dawson City. And some of these films could be three, four, five years out of date by the time they reached Dawson. They’d be novel and new to the people in Dawson, but anybody visiting would realize that, uh, you know, they’d seen that years before.

Well, nobody wanted these films back, so the distributors instructed this gentleman, his name was Clifford Thompson, he worked at the bank, but he was also the agent for the film distributors. He’d asked them what to do with this stuff, and they, they said, well, don’t send it back, it’s, you know, who wants all these outdated films.

So, he was also a member of the, uh, the Amateur Hockey Association, and they had a problem because the, the recreation facility at that time was on the same location, and in the summertime, they had a swimming pool, and in the wintertime, they covered that swimming pool over with decking and they iced it and, uh, they played hockey and curling.

But, uh, as the years went by, they couldn’t afford to maintain it anymore and there was, I think it started to sag in the middle. Imagine the puck would always end up at center ice because of the sag, so.

Angela Misri: Not convenient, no.

Michael Gates: Not, it doesn’t work too well. So they decided to fill it in. And because the, all these films, thousands and thousands of them, uh, were being stored in the Carnegie Library across the street from the then Recreation Center. They got one of the other members of the, the Hockey Association, who was a teamster, to bring a wagon over, and they loaded these films up, and they brought them over and dumped them in the hole to help fill it in. That happened in 1929. So, 49 years later, these films were uncovered, and that’s when the recovery started.

Angela Misri: So that’s that’s crazy. That’s what a journey. That’s a real time machine. It’s a real moment. So I have a question that’s personal then. You discovered this in 1978 and you didn’t publish your book till 2022. What happened in between?

Michael Gates: Well, the first thing that happened was the films were salvaged as, as the, the ground was excavated.

They were hauled out to, uh, uh, an industrial complex the Parks Canada owned a few miles away from Dawson. It was the headquarters of an old dredging company, now abandoned. They were stored in a, a root cellar where the temperature was quite low, and if, if the place
caught fire, it wouldn’t pose any risk.

It was well away from any other buildings, and so forth. And then they, uh, uh, systematically went through these films, and they identified the, the contents, and compiled a list of over 500 titles. And we had to transfer these to Ottawa.

We had them all boxed up in tote boxes, and as it turned out, there was a moving company in town, uh, doing a backhaul with somebody’s, uh, personal, uh, household possessions. They agreed to put these boxes in the back of the truck, behind all this person’s furniture, and they hauled them to Whitehorse.

And then I went down to, uh, make arrangements to have them shipped to Ottawa. Canadian Pacific Airlines wouldn’t touch it because nitrate film is considered a hazardous material, and, flight regulations wouldn’t allow it.

The moving company were, uh, covered by the same restrictions and they wouldn’t touch it. And I went to Greyhound and Greyhound wouldn’t touch it. And so now what do we do? And, uh, we were considering, you know, taking one of our park’s vehicles and loading the films up and having someone drive them all the way to Ottawa.

One of the fellows, uh, our chief of administration, who used to work in the military, suggested we contact, um, the Department of National Defense. And in the end they flew a Hercules transport to Whitehorse, and they loaded up these films, and they flew them directly to Ottawa. They were met in Ottawa by members of the National Film Archives, and over the course of a few days, they came up with the most ingenious way to stabilize these films. Eventually, many years later, they transferred them to high resolution digital files. And around 2015, we were contacted by a filmmaker from New York named Bill Morrison. Bill wanted to make a film using these digitized copies. That was the, uh, the origin of a film called Dawson City Frozen Time, which has been, screened around the world. In the meantime, I had become aware that, uh, there had been a lot of things written about the film find that really skewed the accuracy account of how they actually were uncovered.

Sam Kula had passed away. There weren’t many people left who were there at the very beginning. So I decided it was my task to write the story as how these films were discovered and what happened to them. And so that’s what motivated me so many years later to get involved in writing the book, Hollywood and the Klondike.

Angela Misri: What a great story. This is awesome. Mr. Gates. Is there anything else that I didn’t hit on that you wanted to talk about?

Michael Gates: Well, we could talk about the interesting connections between, the Yukon and Hollywood.

Angela Misri: Tell me, what are the connections between Yukon and Hollywood?

Michael Gates: Well, first of all. The Klondike Gold Rush helped to shape the world’s public impression of what the North was like. And thanks to people like Robert Service and Jack London. And Hollywood embraced the Klondike as one of their popular themes, and they produced many films over the years. And, uh, some of these films were based on Jack London’s writing.

I think that Call of the Wild has been reproduced in film form, for example. They also took Robert Service’s book, The Trail of Ninety Eight, and turned that into a, uh, a silent film. One of the better ones, I thought, portrayed the Gold Rush. And of course, who can forget Charlie Chaplin’s uh…

Angela Misri: yes.

Michael Gates: Classic film, the Gold Rush.

Angela Misri: Thank you so much for that fascinating foray into Yukon history, Mr. Gates.

Michael Gates: Glad to talk to you. Thanks so much, Angela.

Angela Misri: I’d now like to welcome Regional Chief Kluane Adamek to the show. She has been the Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief since 2018, and in 2020, she received a Top 25 Canadian Women of Influence award. She also led the founding of Our Voices: Northern Indigenous Emerging Leaders Collective. Welcome, Regional Chief.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: Hi.

Angela Misri: So, as you know, 2023 marked the 125th anniversary of the Yukon Territory officially joining Canada. What does this anniversary mean to you, especially when it comes to truth and reconciliation?

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: You know, this is a really important conversation for our region, um, because we talk about how, you know, it is, yes, as a territory, you know, formerly from a colonial perspective, it might be 100, um, you know, 100 years.

But the Yukon has been, as a place, as a, a people, as a land, has been around for, you know, tens of thousands of years, and, and the people that are from here have, have too. So it is, you know, interesting. I think that what this brings up for the region, you know, are conversations around, what does it mean for the next hundred years?

And, and when we look at time and place, I mean, a hundred years in sort of, you know, the, the big picture is. is just a snapshot. When we think about, you know, the stories and the songs that we have around, you know, transition migrations that happened, um, you know, from people of what’s now known as Alaska, Southeast Alaska into the Yukon and back again.

It’s important to acknowledge where we’ve come from, um, equally. So we really need to think about where we’re going on this path of reconciliation and what that is going to mean. Um, we here in the Yukon, you know, 125 years was celebrated around the Gold Rush. Um, that history has, you know, devastated communities in the Yukon.

Angela Misri: So, I mean, in terms of truth and reconciliation, it’s much fresher when you think about it from that angle.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: It is. And this is an important I think point to talk about is that a lot of people in this country don’t understand, you know, how fresh some of these realities, um, for Indigenous people are, uh, and when I’m talking about, you know, you talk about residential school, there was also, you know, the sixties scoop.

Angela Misri: Yep.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: Which we’re really starting to hear, you know, um, survivors of that period of time really start to come and, and talk about their stories. We also have, you know, realities in our communities where generations of families have been essentially torn apart because of both of these things.

Angela Misri: Yeah.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: So where does that leave us as a region? And it’s sometimes feels very bleak. At the, at the same time, you then see this whole new generation of children who are growing up drumming and singing and dancing and, you know, so proud of who they are. You know, if you haven’t been to the Yukon before, you know, even upon landing, and I’m, I’m not equating First Nation art in airports to equal, you know, utopia and reconciliation has been checked off. But what, what I think is really important is that when you go to the Yukon and you, when you come to the Yukon and you, you land, I would like to think that you can physically see when you see the welcome sign into the city of Whitehorse, and you can see it in Dän K’è or Southern Tutchone, that you can see that we are still here. And we’re not only still here, that we’re leading, um, that we’re creating the change that needs to happen in our communities, but we’re also propelling change that needs to happen within the territory and beyond.

Angela Misri: You often speak about how Kluane First Nation is a matrilineal and matriarchal society. How does this inform the work you do, and how do you approach leadership?

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: When it comes to the matriarchal ways of knowing and being, it really is about the connection to land, to water.

Um, and you’ll often hear the elders talk about, you know, I’m. And, and Shirley Adamson, who is a matriarch who I, um, was grateful to have had a relationship with, but also a very dear friend who passed away in this last year, talked about, you know, her having the authority to speak because she was on her grandmother’s land. That’s her grandmother’s country. And that always stuck out to me because you don’t often hear that type of reflection shared in sort of a Western context, right? Like, but when you’re talking about who you are and where you come from in our world, it’s always about your mother, um, your clan lineage. So your clan lineage is passed down through the mothers, the grandmothers, um, you’re born into, so to speak. Um, there’s also, you know, responsibilities that come with that. And then. It is the women, um, as the stories and the teachings go that would actually help guide, um, in a lot of ways, the chiefs to make decisions, whether it was, you know, trade alliances or perhaps strategic, um, you know, alliances when it came to whether it be trade or perhaps even marriages in some cases.

It was very much the women that would direct the chiefs and the chiefs would always go back to the elders. In this case, the matriarchs to get that advice. What would the grandmas say? And, and in some cases, you know, not just in, in First Nation cultures. Um, but you know, you never want to like really piss off the aunties or the grandmas anywhere, right?

But that I think, um, even more so perhaps in our communities. And so, uh, when I say communities and I’m speaking to the Yukon. So I would say broadly, the Yukon is very much a matrilineal people and that I find that rub, um, in other places across the country and even the world is something that, um, is really different and can be hard when you’re experiencing it yourself. Perhaps that inexperience or, um, not having the understanding of, you know, when a, when a woman is speaking to an issue or when a grandmother or a mother is speaking to an issue, and that time and space and respect needs to be afforded to that individual, and you don’t necessarily see that, um, in a lot of the sort of Western ways of knowing and being.

Angela Misri: Completely agree. Okay, so I understand that you’ve worked quite a bit with Indigenous youth, particularly, particularly in the founding of the organization Our Voices. Can you tell me a bit more about why you were motivated to work with youth and why they are important in shaping the future of the Yukon?

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: I’m so happy that we’re talking about this because I’ve recently had these, uh, perhaps I don’t know if it’s flashbacks, but just like really good memories about, um, that period of time, um, in, in working with some amazing people. And Our Voices started, you know, out of a really dark and heavy time, actually. I had a cousin, his name was Colin. And he, um, took his own life in the community and it was really heavy. Yeah, it was really heavy. And I, you know, this is a little cousin of mine, but like a brother, a son, a very dear friend, a very close cousin to many others. Um, a nephew, a grandson. And so it just, it really, you know, deeply impacted our whole community and so many parts of the Yukon. And there has been this sort of pattern of you know, death by suicide in a lot of northern rural communities, um, and northern regions. And so there was sort of a group of us that came together and just said, like, we gotta do something. You know, we can’t just look to, you know, people in elected positions. We can’t just look to government. We can’t just look to our own First Nation governments. Um, we can’t point fingers at each other. Like, we just need to come together to think about and talk about what we need to do as young people to support each other, right? Like that’s what we need to do. And so that was sort of, um, you know, not asking for permission, but rather creating community.

Um, and we did this before zoom. So it was like on a teleconference call. Um, and a bunch of us from across the Yukon got together, you know, sort of like moccasin telegraph, if you will, but like through Facebook messaging and so on. And we, we said like, you know, the first thing that came to mind to so many of these young people and I’m talking like, you know, there’s the term, you know, youth, which in my view is sort of like a 20, 25 and under group.

And then there’s like emerging leaders, which is like 25 and above and, you know, are you a youth or an elder? You basically got one of the two. But, um, we kind of came together. And the first thing that we all talked about was how, like, we just need to get on the land and like talk and heal. And the elders will say that, right?

Like, when you’re having a hard time, like, go on the land, go for a walk, dip your feet in the water. Um, side note, need to take that really important teaching of my own, because I haven’t been outside as much as I’d like to this winter. And I can feel that. So, that’s what we did. We embarked on the creation of the first, uh, in many years, youth gathering. Um, Northern Indigenous Emerging Leaders. We created this. profound, um, relationship and bond with each other. And then we created, you know, out of that came Our Voices as this collective. The work that was done. We actually had, um, two gatherings after that. And then Um, things sort of took a shift when some people who are involved in that group actually ended up going into elected leadership positions.

Jordan Peterson became the vice president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. Um, I was then elected as regional chief. Like, um, some of those of us who sort of were leading the charge, I would say. Um, were elected into positions.

And so that group, you know, I think by nature it just became that, um, a group of young people who came together in really hard times, created what was needed, um, and then continued doing that work in like so many different ways after.

Angela Misri: That is so incredibly encouraging. I would love to bring that to my community. Thank you so much for your time, uh, Regional Chief. I really appreciate this.

Regional Chief Kluane Adamek: Thank you and thanks for thinking of me. I’m really grateful.

Angela Misri: And thank you for listening to Canadian Time Machine. This podcast receives funding from the Government of Canada and is created by The Walrus Lab. Like all our episodes, the transcripts will be available in both English and French.

To read the transcripts, please visit thewalrus dot ca slash canadianheritage. This episode was produced by Caro Rolando and edited by Nathara Imenes. Amanda Cupido is the executive producer. Many thanks to Patrick Moore and the Yukon Native Language Centre for providing us with the audio recording of the Challenge song, played by the Tulita drumming group. It was recorded during a cultural exchange between Ross River and Tulita, sometime between 1985 and 1990. For more stories about historic Canadian milestones, visit

The Walrus Lab