LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

In Communities /

By Josh Swan

I learned one of my most important lessons about Toronto the first day I got here. Green light means walk, red light means stop.

What a strange kind of city you have where a person has to wait for the light to change colour before they cross the street. I come from Yellowknife, city of jaywalkers.

Well, actually, it’s supposed to be the diamond capital of Canada, but I never liked that description much.

In Yellowknife jaywalking is like breathing. The chances of getting hit by a car in Yellowknife are about the same as getting struck by lightning.

Gordon Van Tighem, mayor of Yellowknife, talks about what visitors should expect upon arrival to a city six hours south of the arctic circle. “People shouldn’t anticipate highrises, shouldn’t anticipate paved roads or multi-million dollar houses,” said Van Tighem. “We’re a little-big city on the edge of the world’s last accessible wilderness.”

Maybe I should describe Yellowknife more. There’s just slightly less than 20,000 people living there; our two biggest employers are the government and diamond cutting plants; and up there, hockey isn’t just a way of life. Hockey is life.

The two most popular events every year are the Wade Hamer Challenge Cup tournament between the high schools, and the Oldtimers Hockey League Tournament. The NHL lockout must be like withdrawal in “The Knife”.

Yellowknife is a town where winter starts in late October. If you don’t have your winter jacket out by Halloween at the latest, you can count on becoming a human Freezie very quickly. And I do mean Freezie. Your snot will freeze before it hits the ground and if you leave your hands exposed for any amount of time in -20 C and beyond weather, you can kiss those digits goodbye.

I’m amazed that it’s now nearing the end of November in Toronto and I can still sit out on a patio drinking coffee and be quite comfortable wearing a jacket and scarf. Downtown Yellowknife is the Centre Square Mall, a post office and about three bars within a four-block radius of each other. In Yellowknife (and I think the winters are partly to blame for this) if you try chatting someone up downtown you’re likely to get a string of words that aren’t fit for print. I’m quite possibly being a little hard on Yellowknife.

It does have its good points. The bicycle trails, the hiking paths and the generous minimum wage. It’s $8.50 an hour plus Northern Allowance. All Northwest Territories workers receive Northern Allowance because we’re isolated in the winter.

When the ice breaks up in the summer, and when it’s forming in late fall, supplies must be flown into town instead of being trucked in after crossing the Mackenzie River by ferry. For food, Yellowknife has what pretty much every other city in Canada must have by now. There’s your standard fast food joints: McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, etc… There’s a Thai restaurant which, in addition to being the easiest on the wallet, is a favourite of our high school students. If you’re the hunting type, there’s caribou and ptarmigan (which are barely palatable – the birds have very little meat on them). We also have lots of ravens. But don’t even think about killing one.

They’re legally protected because ravens are considered sacred by the Aboriginal People in the Northwest Territories. The native groups that have the strongest presence in the Territories are the Dene and the Inuit, who will be taking great interest in devolving provincial powers to the territories.

Mayor Van Tighem thinks that it will be a long road to province-like powers, but sees the remoteness as a strength rather than a weakness.

“When the sun sets at four in the afternoon, you look for something to do.¬†We have more theatre groups than any other communities our size. We’re self sufficient and independent.”


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