There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair…
”œThe Spell of the Yukon”
It was a long Saturday flying from Ottawa to Vancouver, and then north to Yukon. Nothing like it might have been in the winter of 1898, when the rivers ran with gold. My head bobbed up and down like a rag doll’s after a long day as I fought to stay awake. Then, 20 minutes from Whitehorse, I looked out the window and was transfixed by the unmistakable array of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky ahead. ”œGod’s own neon green,” as the late Stan Rogers put it, was lighting our way and leading us in, a wide belt- like band across the whole sky. The first of many extraordi- nary sights for a southerner in his first trip north.
In the warmth of the early autumn, I was going to Yukon’s capital city, Whitehorse, for what we call ”œout- reach” " to show the flag for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I was there to talk about the United Nations and Canada’s role in the multilateral sys- tem. One of the main issues was how the work of the UN is pertinent to people so far away from UN headquarters or any developing country.
I had spoken on the UN before in many cities and towns, but never ”œnorth of 60.” I didn’t know what to expect, or whether there would be interest in Canada’s international engagements. That concern was allayed quick- ly, when I stopped into a local store the next day. The clerk, a man of about 60 originally from Nova Scotia, provided a running commentary with the local newscast. The lead story on Afghanistan had hardly begun when he began talk- ing over the radio.
”œTime to get them out of there. We got no business being there. Our soldiers think that too.” I couldn’t let his comment go unchallenged, so I began asking him ques- tions, and we had a spirited conversation.
In the next few days, I spoke at the local college, three high schools and a service club, before heading back to Vancouver and then Ottawa. There were several memo- rable moments. On my first day of speaking, a student at F.H. Collins Secondary School asked me what was my favourite place to work abroad. There were so many mem- ories: the night silence of a west African jungle, playing with children in a refugee camp in Macedonia, the crowd- ed streets and open marshes of Bangladesh. The pristine streets of Geneva, the hot sidewalks of New York. I told them to see the world, and work for the UN if they want- ed to. Nothing could stop them if they had the desire.
At Porter Creek High School in the ”œsuburbs” of Whitehorse, I had just finished my spiel about the history of the UN, Canada’s involvement, the move toward reform under Kofi Annan and Canada’s commitment to the respon- sibility to protect, when a slim teenager in a powder-blue shirt put me on the spot.
”œWhat about Rwanda?” he asked. I asked what he meant. ”œWhat about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994? Why didn’t the responsibility to protect apply there?”
I noticed that, probably uninten- tionally, he was wearing a shirt which bore the exact colours of the UN. I paused and explained that the Canada-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty had been struck to respond to the genocides in Rwanda and the massacre in Srebrenica; it reported in 2001 and leaders at the 2005 UN World Summit had endorsed the concept. So now it was up to Canada to back up ”œR2P.” It was a long answer for a short question, but it seemed to get the point across.
Then a confident and artic- ulate Native student want- ed to know how she could get a job in the UN system. I provid- ed a few details, calling on my own experience with the UN, all the while thinking that this was a future leader, waiting to be discovered. Not long after, she wrote me to follow up.
At Yukon College, I was impressed by the modern building, centred on a green space, overlooking the city. The Whitehorse campus, one of eight, has about 3,000 full- and part-time students, who face climatic and other chal- lenges not shared by their southern brothers and sisters On the front door and in the halls, a ubiquitous poster warned, ”œBear Alert. A bear is in the area. Notify police if you see the bear.”
The first evening class at the col- lege was attended by about a dozen students, each of whom knew his or her subject very well. After my presen- tation on Canada and the UN, the Arctic Council and International Polar Year, questions began to emerge on the inner workings of the UN. Some of the students had worked within the UN system or with NGOs abroad. Their professor had come to Yukon years ago and worked her way from driving a truck to studying, then teaching international policy.
The next morning, I was up early for breakfast with the local Rotary Club, and a chance to speak about the long- time connection between the World Health Organization and Rotary that, with Canada’s help, has almost eradicat- ed polio. I was soon back at the college, where I spoke in the ”œpit” (a small indoor amphitheatre) to an enthusiastic group, most concerned about Canada’s change from peacekeeping to peace- making. That night, I spoke at a philos- ophy class about the role of the news media and its influence on the decision making process at the UN. The interest of the students was palpable, and the discussion of what could have been a pretty dry topic was pretty intense.
My final day in Yukon was my day en français. I had a tour of the offices of the dynamic Association Franco-Yukonnaise, and then spoke at École Secondaire Émilie-Tremblay, a French-only high school with several hundred students. The Grades 9 and 10 students there wanted to know how and when they could work in the international system abroad; with their linguistic skills, the world is their oyster. The school is a micro- cosm of the francophone community in Yukon: many of the students are recent migrants from Quebec, and some are long-term residents. About 10 percent of the population in
Yukon is French-speaking or bilingual anglophone, and so there is a very active franco- phone community. I was sur- prised, as a Montrealer, to speak so much French, and to hear so much being spoken so far from Quebec.
I finished the trip by driv- ing 100 kilometres down the Alaska Highway to see the vast and spectacular landscape. Like the entire visit, the expe- rience was an eye-opener. As I drove along, rarely seeing another vehicle, it reminded me that whenever I have trav- elled abroad, there is always someone who comments on Canada’s vastness. My response is always to remind people of our massive cities and urban centres.
But in Yukon, the space real- ly hits home. Leaving Whitehorse, there are few signs of life. Compare that with Bangladesh, where I lived a few years ago: 144 million people live in a space only one-third the size of Yukon. In Bangladesh, one always saw people, even in the most remote places. Yukon is just so vast.
Even so, the arrival of satellite tel- evision has ensured that everyone has a sense of what is going on in the world, and young people are engaged, interested and receiving a education at least as good as they would get ”œsouth of 60.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Yukon ”œamong the few frontiers on the North American continent.” And it is hard to disagree. Everything is new here; this is the future, with a people as unspoiled as the land. The prospect of boom times in Yukon, with oil and gas and pipeline development, is expected to spur Whitehorse to double in the next decade. Still, at 50,000 to 60,000 people, it will still be a very small ”œmetropolis.”
There are many famous Yukoners: writers Pierre Berton and Robert Service come to mind. If the students I met are any indication, the people of Yukon will add their names to Canada’s international reputation in the years to come.
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land " oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back " and I will.