Yellowknife: cold, wild, and heavy under weight of government

Before coming here an Ottawa official told this reporter this northernmost Canadian city is not the ``real north.'' You have to visit Indian or Inuit (Eskimo) villages to see the genuine thing, he said. Yellowknife is too much like a northern Ontario town. Well, there's something to what he said.

Yellowknife, capital for the Northwest Territories, does have a sizable population of officially 11,000, and perhaps even as much as 13,000. The town has been enjoying something of a boom. Other communities up here have populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.

Yellowknife also enjoys a skyline with a number of office buildings rising as high as 10 stories. And most of the town has running water, indoor plumbing, city sewers, electricity, and other amenities of ``civilization.'' Indeed, the Beta system for watching videotaped movies on television is extremely popular here.

Nonetheless, this town on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake is decidedly different. For one thing, once in a while the ground shakes. The vibrations are caused by an underground blast in the ore bodies of one of the two gold mines on the edge of the city. People here like to make a joke about Yellowknife's gold mines being paved with streets. These are old gold mines, employing only a few hundred.

``There is no other place I have lived in where government is so dominant,'' says Robert Trudeau, a senior advisor in the territorial Department of Economic Development and Tourism.

One reason why the government is so big here is that Ottawa wants to settle some people ``up here'' to help protect its claim of national sovereignty over northern Canada. The Northwest Territories covers 1.3 million square miles, approximately equal to the size of India. But only about 50,000 people live in this area of lakes, woods, tundra, and Arctic islands.

Yellowknife was proclaimed the capital of the Northwest Territories in the spring of 1967. Later that year the Commissioner of the Territories moved his offices north from Ottawa. As power has evolved into the hands of the 24-person Legislative Assembly here, government has grown, and grown, and grown.

All that government is expensive. The operating budget of the territorial government amounted to $615 million in 1985, with about $440 million provided by the government of Canada.

By today, the number of territorial civil servants numbers around 1,400. The city, which had a population of around 3,000 in 1945, grew to 6,500 by 1970.

``Our town is going through a real growth spurt,'' says Michael McGrath, vice principal of Sir John Franklin High School, who was elected mayor last month. ``The commercial sector is just booming. There are two malls on the drawing boards. And housing is in a crisis. There's a dire need for more affordable housing.''

Until the winter cold set in, the city was experiencing something of a building boom. Now outdoor construction is pretty well shut down for the long winter. Other reasons for the boom include an expansion of base operations for oil exploration or metal mining ventures further north. Yellowknife also has become big enough to attract more service businesses.

In any case, residents here talk with horror about two-bedroom apartments renting for $800 a month and a basic three-bedroom bungalow selling for $140,000. That may seem modest by the standards of big-city life in the United States, but it seems high to people here.

Yellowknife lies just south of the tree line. North of that line, not even short bush-like trees can survive because of the depth of the permafrost. At this time of year, children go to school in the dark. They will see the sun rise about recess time, and watch the sun set again before going home under the Northern Lights. In June, their parents may join a golf tournament that starts at midnight, while it is still daylight.

Talk up here recently was about the ``mild'' weather this winter. Before Christmas, temperatures ran a few degrees above zero Fahrenheit. Now it is back down to the usual 30-40 below at this time of year.

The road out, 946 miles to Edmonton, is again open. It was closed last month during the freeze-up on the Mackenzie River, and will close again for two or three weeks in the spring during the break-up. There is no bridge across the river. So in winter, vehicles drive across the ice. During the remainder of the year they take a ferry across. Most of the drive is on a well-graded gravel surface.

Like other northern communities, Yellowknife is highly dependent on aircraft for transport of people and goods. My guide here drove me up to a hilltop to view ``Rainbow Valley,'' a part of town where some of the city's Dene, or Indians, live. As in much of America, many Indians here suffer from poverty and alcoholism. They have dignity and pride. They do not like strangers driving through their area as though it were a tourist oddity.

Many of the homes in Rainbow Valley and in some other parts of town must rely on carted water and what are delicately called ``honeybags'' -- a system of disposing of sewage.

Yellowknife, by the way, did not get its name from the gold finds. It was named by early fur traders after seeing the copper-bladed knives of the local Indians.

Yellowknifers boast about the cold. They tell of how their cars have heaters for the engine block, electric blankets for the battery and inside the car itself, and some even remote control starters.

When going on a long drive in sub-zero weather, many notify the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of expected arrival times so that a rescue party can be sent out if their car should break down.

I had supper with Erik Watt, a veteran journalist here. Like many others in northern Canada, he enjoys telling tales of the adventures and misadventures of northerners, of the many bugs -- mosquitoes, no-see-ums, flies, that bite in the spring and summer -- of the fishing, of the grizzlies, moose, and beaver.

``It is a beautiful, deadly country,'' Watt said.

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