Friday, July 15, 2011

Reader's Diary #735- Ray Price: Yellowknife

Have you joined the local food movement? Are you a locavore? I've always thought it was a good idea, but living in the Northwest Territories, I'd starve. Sure aboriginal people survived around these parts for centuries, but I really don't have those skills. I can pick out a decent nectarine at the local Co-op, but that isn't exactly local fare.

So while jumping on the local food bandwagon isn't something I'm ready for just yet, maybe I can trademark a local reading movement. Localit? Have you read much history of your current town or city of residence? I'm looking forward to doing more of it. As part of my Canadian Book Challenge, I've always read 13 or more books, making sure that each province and territory was represented by at least one book. This time around I'm still taking that approach for 13 books, but I've also decided to read an additional 13 books, each set north of 60. Not necessarily localized as much as my current choice, but all from the territories.

To some extent I enjoyed Yellowknife* by Ray Price. I wanted to learn about the history of Yellowknife, and I did learn some. It was first published in 1967, the same year Yellowknife became the official capital of the Northwest Territories. So, considering that Yellowknife was only permanently settled in 1935, there's more history not covered than is. Of course, Price can't be faulted for that.

He can, however, be faulted for other things he left out, and most notably, the aboriginal achievements and influence on the town's growth. As a relative newcomer to Yellowknife, I quite enjoy learning about the local aboriginal populations, especially the Dene who make up the largest such group. They are active in decision making, culture, business and just day to day life. Not only did Price ignore almost all their contributions to early Yellowknife history, the few times he did mention them were with racist generalizations. Had Price been merely quoting other racists, it could be said that he was just reporting a common and unfortunate view at the time. However, on more than one occasion he lets his own biases slip, and through their relative omission in the book it is clear Price considered Yellowknife to be built solely by white men. Not of course to downplay or discredit any of the achievements of the white men of course, but it's clearly not the whole picture.

The bulk of Yellowknife deals with the mining history. At times it becomes tedious, as Price seemed to feel the need to talk above every prospector who ever tried to stake a gold claim in the Yellowknife area. Clearly gold mining brought Yellowknife to where it is today, but of more interest to me were those who first set up the airlines, newspapers, hotels, and so on. Price was able to find the characters behind the individuals in a manner similar to Pierre Berton, and this was what kept the book interesting. It was also fun to learn about the names behind all the streets, trails, buildings and so on, that I've just taken for granted up to this point.

But again, Price omitted a lot, and not only the aboriginal achievements. He talks in great detail about the push for beer parlors, sewers, and hospitals, for instance, but barely skims the introduction of schools and, perhaps more surprisingly since Price himself was a Baptist minister, churches.

Still, the book is a starting point for someone interested in Yellowknife history and would no doubt be a valuable resource for someone wanting to do it better.**

*Not to be confused with Steve Zipp's brilliant novel of the same name, which in turn is not to be confused with Dennis St. John's novel also known simply as Yellowknife, of which I have not yet read.

**Looking through Amazon, apparently Erik Watt also wrote a history of Yellowknife called Yellowknife: How A City Grew which I may need to order. Published in 1990, it would, at the very least, give some of the more recent history, though again missing some pretty major milestones that came later: the closing of the mines, a mass-murder, diamond mines, and the creation of Nunavut to name but a few.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Although it's obvious this book has some glaring omissions, I can see it being a starting point to delving into local history. I will have to check out some books about this place!

I find I am always charmed when I read fiction in which I recognize places I have lived.

John Mutford said...

Barb: Let me know what titles you come up with!

Wanda said...

It's clear that the problems with this book became an annoyance for you, John. I'm glad that you were at least able to glean some cool facts about place names and such, that part sounds interesting.