The North Treasure Trove Or Partner In Confederation?
Historian Ken Coates Explains What The North Is

Interview by Jeremy Mouat

Ken Coates was raised in the North, and has written extensively on the region. His doctorate, completed at the University of British Columbia in 1984, examined federal government policy and the Native people in the Yukon. Since then, he has written a number of articles on Northern topics, as well as edited books on Canadian native history the Alaska Highway, and on Canada's North. He has also written a history of the North, Canada's Colonies, and co—written a contemporary account of the region, The Modern North, with Judith Powell. Ken taught history at Brandon University for several years, but since 1986 has been teaching at the University of Victoria.

Aurora: You've written that the North has always been seen as a place for economic development, development by and for southerners.

Coates: I think the best description of the way Canadians view the North is as an attic. That is, a place where you have a store of potential treasures that are largely forgotten. They are left up there until something be comes valuable, at which point you go scurrying up as quickly as you can. You don't worry if you push things aside and create a mess; you just grab what you want. Because so very, very few Canadians have lived in the North, they tend not to see its human or environmental side. They see it as simply a place with resources that are to be used in the national interest.

The federal government looks upon the North primarily as its treasure trove. The government carefully protects the resources that might be there for its own future use. This is coupled with the idea of an allegedly tiny population that does not deserve full control of these wonderful resources. For example, with National Energy Policy and mineral policy, the federal government sets the pattern for economic development in the South and for the South. We can also see it in the decision to provide huge government funding for the Pine Point development in the Northwest Territories and for the construction of the Faro Mine in the Yukon. Both took place as a result of negotiations between the corporations and the federal government, and neither involved detailed discussions with local and territorial governments. The implications are obvious. These massive economic developments begin because the federal government has deemed them important to the country without precautions being taken to make sure that they are suited to local needs.

Aurora: Ken, what you're describing seems very similar to the conditions which created tensions between Western Canada and central Canada with the National Energy Policy. In Western Canada those policies, and the attitude behind them, provoked a real sense of hostility to central Canada. Has there been a similar attitude in the North?

Coates: There have been occasions when there has been that kind of frustration, that kind of anger. In the Yukon, for example, in the 1960s, there was a movement for autonomy that demanded all sorts of changes and reorganization of political priorities. The attitudes there were much like those in British Columbia during the 1920s or in the Western prairies from 1870 on. But there are important differences.

Many hundreds of thousands of people have made Western Canada their home. They are trying to provide a future for their families, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren's grandchildren. Among the non—native population in the Canadian North, only a very small number have shown any kind of long—term commitment to the area. Whether you're talking about Klondike gold miners, workers on the Beaufort Sea oil platforms, or students who work for the summer in the tourist industry, you're describing a legacy of transiency among the non—native population. And people who are transient simply do not look to the long term. They aren't as concerned, for example, about the implications of rapid resource development or the impact on the aboriginal population of the opening of a mine, or the environmental consequences of a pipeline development. This stands in direct contrast to the aboriginal people who take a long—term perspective and who demand consideration for future generations.

What makes the recent fifteen to twenty years very exciting, but also very traumatic, are two things. One is the development of, a native political voice which has much in common with the political voice of Western protest in the sense of saying, “Look out for our future. Don't worry about the short-term situation.” The second development is the beginning of a non—native permanent population. It's not very large, but it has separated itself from the transient population. These non-native people hope their families will stay. Their concern now is not to get rich quickly; it is to make a living and to provide an economic base for their children.

Aurora: Federal policy towards native people seems to have been subordinated to the government's broader concerns for preserving the North for potential development.

Coates: There's no question that the federal government's concept of the role of northern native people in the country has been subordinated to other considerations, to questions of government spending, to economic development, and to the activities of non—native people generally. The federal government quite simply hasn't been able to figure out what to do with northern, nomadic native people. There are no farms, no cities, and no jobs for them. Federal action comes only when resource development is threatened. The Klondike Gold Rush, for example, led to the signing of Treaty 8 in northern Alberta. The discovery of oil in the Mackenzie River Valley led to the imposition of Treaty 11. So until the land was needed by the rest of Canada, the federal government simply said, “Let's leave the Indians as Indians. It's better for them, and it's cheaper for us. Let's simply avoid all those financial commitments that are starting to cost us so much money in the rest of Canada.”

So until 1950, the government's attitude toward northern native peoples was to more or less leave them alone. If there was involvement, it was largely to protect their way of life. There were minor efforts to protect hunting, trapping, and fishing rights. These were intended to prevent them from starving and falling back on government rations.

In the post—World War II period, the federal government became increasingly concerned with integrating native people into the mainstream of Canadian society. A tremendous emphasis was placed, for example, on the education of native children and particularly the establishment of residential schools. Children were removed from what the government saw as the pernicious influences of their parents and their home community. The residential schools, of course, have had tragic consequences.

During the post—World War II period the Canadian welfare state was extended. Programs were pushed into the North without much thought given to their likely implications. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the mother ‘s allowance. It seemed to be the most uncontroversial government program ever, giving every family in Canada up to five dollars for every child of school age. But the paternalistic impulse in the federal government was very strong, and they couldn't bring themselves to give cheques to nomadic native people. The government thought that these people, after being off in the bush for six or seven months, would come down to a fur trading post, find a big cheque waiting for them, and end up spending the money foolishly. The great concern, of course, was that they would buy alcohol or perhaps spend the money on themselves rather than on their children.

So the federal government decided to give them an allowance in kind. They drew up a list of things they thought appropriate for native children to have and required that people buy from that list. Now, the list of items was very suitable perhaps in southern Canada but not as suitable in the North. For example, one of the items on the list was baby formula. We also saw the introduction of things like rubber boots, whereas a mukluk or a moccasin is a far more suitable piece of footwear.

Aurora: Your book The Modern North gives a sense that people are gradually asserting their own agenda, whether it be in resource development, political growth, or even cultural activities. Is this in fact happening,or is it that we in the South have become more sensitive to northern issues?

Coates: Well, there's no question that the South has provided the resources. Part of the reason the South is giving the Yukon and the Northwest Territories the money they need to do these things is in large measure out of a sense of guilt, out of a realization that historically, we have not treated the North well, that we have not yet found a way to accommodate the North's legitimate interest within the national scheme of things. We deal with that the way Canadians always deal with things: we send money.

I think the North has the most exciting cultural and social environment in Canada right now. Dynamic things are happening in education, in art, in music, in the political sphere, and in ecological awareness. These things are happening because the resources are there but also because the people are demanding that governments respond to their requests.

At the same time, the North is also on the verge of some great tragedies, tragedies of massive and almost unheard—of consequences. When you start adding up the impact of fetal alcohol syndrome on future generations, you realize that this is going to have a tragic and traumatic effect for generations to come.

At the same time, what troubles me more than anything else is the steady and almost irrevocable erosion of aboriginal languages and, therefore, the cultures that are embedded in those languages. A number of native languages in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon are on the verge of dying out within the next decade or two. We watch the Tagish Indians where there are a few people alive who still speak those languages. And they are disappearing right before our eyes.

So while we should celebrate the exciting things that are going on, we also have to be far more aware of the human and cultural tragedies that are occurring. Quite frankly, I don't think Canadians really care about those tragedies. Because we send money and subsidize the North so heavily, we think we've done our part. But we haven't done our part at all until we realize that our real obligation lies in celebrating the aboriginal cultures in the North and making sure that they have the means to both survive and to change as they see fit.

Aurora: Getting back to the notion of the South becoming more sensitive to northern issues, how much importance would you attach to the Berger inquiry or to the Mackenzie Pipeline inquiry?

Coates: Thomas Berger realized that he had a unique opportunity to take the words, emotions, and passions of the North and share them with the rest of Canada. He could very easily have done what all other royal commissions in Canada tend to do, which is find a bunch of boring people and set them up in a hotel room in front of a TV camera. Instead he took the cameras with him into the North, listened intently to the people, and made sure that the rest of Canada listened, too.

At that time, in the mid—seventies, when the Berger inquiry was almost a nightly event for months on end, Canadians discovered that aboriginal society lived in a way that they had assumed had long since ceased to exist. Aboriginal people were alive, their values were alive, their voice was true, sincere, and vital. The Berger inquiry made all Canadians aware of that. It also sensitized the news media who changed the way they reported issues in the North. They realized that they had to ask native people what they thought of things which they simply had not done in the past.

Canadians before this time, and we still see elements of this, idealized life in the North. They reduced it to a collage of very simple images. In this way, we tend to be a bit hypocritical about the North. We accept northern images, northern art, and northern ideas as part of our national identity. The art that we share with the world, for example, is very strongly northern in its orientation. The fact that we buy Inuit art suggests a sincere, but idealistic, attachment to a certain romantic, traditional conception of the North. We don't want to see Inuit on snowmobiles. We want to see Inuit stabbing a spear through the ice.

Berger pointed out that an idealized concept of the North is fine. We can have a North that is pristine and unspoiled, but we also have to be realistic and realize that there are people up here whose lives are being tremendously transformed by technology and modernization and who don't like what is happening to them. Berger gave people a sense of perspective and a sense of realism about the North.

Aurora: Was there an impact on the North, as well as a greater sensitivity in the South?

Coates: The impact on the North was the realization that they had something that would sell in the South. The North discovered that being political carried weight in the South and that a certain way of explaining their case would get attention.

For a longtime, there was a sense in the North, particularly among native people, that nobody cared and nobody listened. They could yell and scream, and they could have justice on their side, but nobody would pay attention to them. That certainly was the case through the fifties and the sixties when native people were trying to organize and get attention paid to their legitimate interests. In the 1970s, they found their market, as It were. Once they discovered it, they learned how to develop a following in the South.

Aurora: My next question is about Meech Lake, an agreement which seems to have a number of implications for the North. Assuming that it is passed, what do you see as its likely impact on the North?

Coates: I think that Meech Lake is a horrendous insult to the very concept of democracy in this country. It's an insult to the idea of a constitutional process, and it's an insult to the idea that the regions of Canada will evolve toward partnership. These basic ideas— that we are a democratic country, that we involve the people in constitutional reform, and that every region has the opportunity to move toward partnership—are essential elements in the way in which Canada has historically operated.

Meech Lake tells us that the North's popularity is on very shaky ground. In other words, interest in the North goes up and down like the temperature. During the Berger inquiry, interest was intense. Meech Lake says that when Canadians see the rest of their interests at stake, they will ignore the North without blinking an eye.

Aurora: Would it be fair to say that the agreement has not been well received in the North?

Coates: The agreement has been very poorly received in the North. The Yukon and Northwest Territories representatives are horrified at what has happened. It's important to make a very simple point. The Yukon and Northwest Territories are not, right now, demanding provincial status. There were demands in the 1970s for provincial status, but that is not an issue of the 1990s. The Yukon and Northwest Territories realize that provincial status is a pipe dream right now and that other issues like land claims, aboriginal rights, and economic development have to take priority. But Meech Lake told the Yukon and Northwest Territories that they might never become provinces. The implication of Meech Lake is that they could easily be locked into being perpetual colonies. If the agreement goes through, the Yukon and Northwest Territories have a very slim chance of ever legitimately aspiring to be full partners in Confederation. That is why they are furious at the way in which Canada can go about creating a constitution that completely denies them a legitimate part of the process.

Aurora: Despite this, the Yukon, in particular, has had a couple of very high profile MPs in Ottawa. I'm thinking of Erik Nielsen, until recently Deputy Prime Minister, and Audrey McLaughlin, the new leader of the federal New Democrats. Has this had an impact on the South, analogous to the Berger inquiry, in terms of raising our awareness of northern issues?

Coates: I think it's fair to say that Erik Nielsen did not. He was not dramatic or outgoing, although he could be controversial in his own way. He did a very good job of looking after the needs of the Yukon Territory in terms of local constituency matters. Territorial federal government expenditures during his period of office give lots of evidence of that. But Eric Nielsen did not promote the North aggressively on the national stage.

Audrey McLaughlin is a different case. I think she realizes that her rise to prominence within the New Democrats is in large measure because she's from the North. The Yukon is Canada's only New Democrat government. It is, in my mind, one of the most creative governments in Canada, particularly regarding social legislation and human rights legislation. Audrey McLaughlin is a very dedicated and very committed northerner. Unlike Erik Nielsen, she is determined to make sure that Canadians remember that she is a northern Canadian and determined that Canadians recognize that a huge part of their country is not yet incorporated fully within the Canadian consciousness.

I was very struck with one very simple phrase of her acceptance speech: “I am going to make sure that the message. of the New Democrats goes across Canada from coast to coast to coast.” A very simple concept which says, we are a country with three coasts, not just two. We have an Arctic front that has to be taken into account, and until it's taken into account, Canada's not complete. I have no doubts whatsoever that Audrey McLaughlin will ensure that northern and native issues will get high precedence on the national scene.

Aurora: Territorial politics in the Yukon seem to have swung dramatically in the eighties from a “development now” approach with the Territorial Conservative party to a more cautious attitude, one more sensitive to native concerns, with Tony Penikett and the New Democrats.

Coates: I think you've made a very accurate observation in terms of the bias and orientation of those two governments. The Conservative government was very interested in economical government and particularly nonrenewable resource development such as encouraging mining. The current administration is more concerned with aboriginal issues; with getting land claims settled, if they possibly can; with social legislation; and with sustainable economic development. They are looking to diversify the economy, to develop secondary and service industries to keep people in the North by creating more opportunities for them.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that the Yukon is best described as a very small political system. When we talk about a big change from Conservative to New Democrat, we have to be careful. If we look at the last couple of Yukon elections, we see that the New Democrats did not exactly sweep into power. Their first electoral victory was a minority government, and they got in because of some strange situations in a couple of ridings. One riding, for example, had three different Conservative members running for office, which mashed up the conservative vote and allowed a New Democrat to get in with a very small percentage. Most members of the legislature in the Yukon are elected by a couple hundred votes. A ten or fifteen vote swing, which can be a family that goes from one candidate to another, can determine the outcome of an election. It's conceivable that the vote could swing back in the other direction very quickly.

Aurora: The other very distinct political entity is the Northwest Territories which has a unique system of consensual decision making in the absence of party lines. It seems a foreign concept of government to those of us who watch the House of Commons in action or have been to the provincial legislature. Why is it so successful in the North?

Coates: I think it's so successful simply because the people know that the right decision gets made because it is right, not just because a particular group or party has backed it. In provincial or federal politics, if an individual comes forward with a piece of legislation but that person happens not to be on the government's side, the legislation hasn't a hope of getting through. In the North, the government represents all Northwest Territories people. People don't get stuck in power struggles in the same way that they do in a party political system.

However, the situation is not without its shortcomings. Personalities weigh very heavily in a consensus administration like this, and if people hold a grudge against an individual, they can very quickly turn the political system on its head. If you come representing Rankin Inlet, you're representing fifteen hundred people, almost all of whom have known you since birth. It can be somewhat incestuous in terms of the relationship between government officials and political leaders. And it can be localized, in the sense that the real issues of the day may be a sewer system for Rankin Inlet rather than constitutional reform for the Northwest Territories, as a whole.

Aurora: What has been the impact of modern media in the North?

Coates: The introduction of radio and television in the North has resulted in an almost schizophrenic attitude among the aboriginal population, particularly among the children. They may be living in a place like Old Crow, hundreds of miles away from any major city, yet they are being raised on the images of California. Their frame of reference becomes television characters. They want to grow up to be an airline pilot or a detective in Miami. They wear T—shirts with “Motley Crew” and “ACDC” on them, and it looks completely out of sync with the reality of being in an isolated aboriginal community.

But rather than simply surrendering to this new technology, the aboriginal people of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon have been the leaders in the country at realizing that if technology can have such a negative effect, it can also have a positive effect. Technology by itself is neutral. It is the application of technology that can be destructive or supportive. Native people chose to have television come in; it wasn't dropped on their heads. They voted in many communities to bring television in. They now use television to introduce native children and native communities to their own culture.

Aboriginal people are part of the world, and they are going to be exposed to these technologies whether one likes it or not. It would be paternalistic in the extreme for us to say that we should keep radio and television away from native people so they can be true Indians. You do not stop being indigenous or aboriginal simply because you are a fan of “The Cosby Show.” I think the fact that native people have been able to turn these technologies on their head and use them to reinforce aboriginal society is a very good indication of the strength and vitality of aboriginal culture in the North.

Aurora: One of the things that strikes me is your optimism. Why are you so confident about the future of the North?

Coates: I was raised in the Yukon, and when I go back now I am amazed at the positive changes. I am referring to native people taking control of their lives, dealing with alcohol, confronting wife abuse and child abuse. I see native people across the North dealing with the social pathology of their times in perhaps the most sophisticated and sincere way of any communities in any cultures in North America. I am optimistic because I see in the last twenty years improvements in the life and times of the average native person in the North.

I think what's happening in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories may be models for how the rest of the world may come to deal with their aboriginal peoples. I'm not saying we haven't made mistakes and that there aren't major issues left to resolve. But countries around the world which have aboriginal populations that they are in the process of destroying culturally, if not physically, may be able to come to Canada's North and see how natives and whites can coexist. I'm optimistic because it seems like native people have the tools and the ability to make changes themselves and because Canadians are prepared to accept those changes. Goodness knows there are serious problems, but I think we can do for our aboriginal people, or undo for our aboriginal people what we have done to them in the past.

Books by Ken Coates

The Modern North: People, Politics and the Struggle against Colonialism. Lorimer, 1988.

Land of the Midnight Sun: A History of the Yukon. Hurtig, 1988.

Canada's Colonies: A History of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Lorimer, 1985.

Article originally published Spring 1990

An Aurora Update

Prior to his current position as Dean of Arts and Science, University of Saskatchewan, Ken Coates was Professor of History and Dean of Arts at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John from 1997 to January 1, 2001. Previously, he was founding Vice-President Academic at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Research interests resulting in a number of publications include Japanese studies, indigenous peoples/indigenous-newcomer encounter, world and comparative history, information technology and society/northern and arctic studies and, institutional change in universities.

Professor Coates is the recipient of several awards including an Award of Merit from the Yukon Museum and Historical Association for Best Left as Indians and North to Alaska.

Related Links:

McGill-Queen's University Press - Read the following descriptions, reviews and extracts from:

Best Left as Indians
The Marshall Decision and Native Rights


Updated April 2002

Citation Format

Mouat, Jeremy (1990). The North Treasure Trove Or Partner In Confederation? Historian Ken Coates Explains What The North Is And What. Aurora Online: