Canadians Keep Forgetting about the North

The territories are such an integral part of our national brand. Yet most of us pay them little collective attention

A photo of a night sky with northern lights over downtown Whitehorse.

On the evening of October 3, 2023, I posted a snarky message on the website formerly known as Twitter: “Early election results from Manitoba suggest it’s gonna be a big night for territorial tweeters saying ‘first PROVINCIAL premier!’”

Wab Kinew’s New Democratic Party had just been voted to power in the easternmost prairie province, and I wasn’t the only one who had noticed a trend in some of the rapid-response reporting from journalists following the election results. Many people, including some reporters, had shared the claim that Kinew, who is Anishinaabe, would be the first Indigenous premier in Canadian history.

Like much of what we see on social media these days, it wasn’t true. Not only had Manitoba been founded by Métis leader Louis Riel and later led by a Métis premier, John Norquay, from 1878 to 1887, but—more pertinent to my tweet—Canada’s territories have elected several First Nations, Inuit, and Métis premiers.

Kinew’s leadership still marks an important first: he is the first provincial premier to hail from a First Nation. And mistakes happen, especially on social media, especially in the speed and excitement of an election night. But at the risk of reading too much into a few tweets, this error struck me as representative of a larger truth about Canada and Canadians: many of us don’t know a whole lot about the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. And we don’t even know what we don’t know, because, perhaps, we don’t think about the North all that much.

What did I know before I moved to the Yukon fourteen years ago? I was vaguely aware of Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush—I had read The Call of the Wild as a kid. I knew that Nunavut had come into formal existence when I was in high school, changing the map of Canada that I had memorized early on in elementary school. I also had a family connection: I knew that my mother’s family had lived at Giant Mine, outside Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, when she was young.

Beyond that, I couldn’t have told you much. Nor, I suspect, can most of “us”—us, here, meaning Canadians who live or were raised in the provinces. The photographer Kristian Binder, who is from the western Arctic town of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, has endured a long-running battle with internet users who believe his photos are fake—because there are trees in them. (The treeline is much farther north in western Canada than in the east, where it slumps down around the edges of Hudson Bay.) And anyone who’s lived in Whitehorse or Yellowknife can tell you about how often southerners confuse the capitals of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, swapping one compound name featuring a colour and a noun for the other, or remixing them into new names entirely. (Yellowhorse? Whiteknife?) When I describe where I live, I often add something like “north of British Columbia” or “right next to Alaska” to clarify.

I try not to burn too much energy feeling defensive or frustrated about the territories being overlooked. But I am interested in asking why. If the North is such an integral part of our national brand, why do we pay it so little collective attention?

Part of it might be cultural representation or the mainstream lack thereof. So often, popular books and articles and documentaries about the North are firmly focused on colonial history, like the Klondike Gold Rush or the lost Franklin expedition. It’s been more than a quarter century since the CBC drama North of 60 went off air, and while northern-set, Indigenous-led films have made some important inroads, the vast majority of the North’s small-screen starring roles since then have featured ice-road truckers, modern-day gold miners, or reality TV survivalists dropped into the wild. There is no equivalent of Trailer Park Boys or Little Mosque on the Prairie for the territories; there are few obvious opportunities for southerners to learn about normal, contemporary life (as opposed to reality TV daredevilry) up here.

Part of it, too, is just that this is a big country, and despite our relatively sparse overall population, there are a lot of pockets and sub-geographies to learn. I’m sure there are plenty of easterners who can’t tell Comox from Kamloops or who still mix up Saskatoon and Regina. Only so many facts about the country can become part of the knowledge base that most of us share.

But the North’s absence from our collective brain looms larger, to me, because life here is so different from the everyday that most Canadians experience. Digs at reality television aside, I really do have friends here who fly bush planes, work traplines, run dog teams, and search for gold. I found a pile of bear scat not far from my back door in the heart of Whitehorse last summer, and sometimes, when the nights are dark and clear enough, I can see the northern lights from my window.

What I love best about the modern North—what keeps me here—is the way those elements, the working legacies, the expected natural grandeur, mix and mingle with contemporary urban life. Despite the traditional activities that endure, the territories aren’t a time capsule, and they’re more diverse, more complex, than many people might imagine. Former Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin was the first woman in Canadian history to lead a federal party in the House of Commons when she was head of the NDP from 1989 to 1995. Nellie Cournoyea, who is from Aklavik, Northwest Territories, was the first Indigenous woman to serve as premier of a Canadian territory and only the second woman to lead a Canadian province or territory. Inuvik’s Midnight Sun Mosque travelled 4,000 kilometres to reach its home in the Arctic, more than 1,500 kilometres of that by barge down the Mackenzie River (Deh Cho). The North is dynamic, always evolving into something much richer than the stereotypes would suggest.

Back in 2006, the three territorial premiers at the time proposed formally changing Canada’s motto: “From sea to sea” would have become “From sea to sea to sea,” to incorporate our Arctic coast. The idea was to add a “north–south perspective” to complicate our more typical east–west conception of the country. That didn’t officially happen, but it’s not too late for Canadians to learn a little more about the North.

With thanks to the Gordon Foundation for supporting the work of writers from Canada’s North.

Eva Holland
Eva Holland (@evaholland) is a a contributing writer for The Walrus.