A lifelong Torontonian, I left my hometown several years ago for the Far North. I watched Toronto transform from a big city with the heart of a small town to an enormous city that seemed heartless. I eventually landed in Whitehorse, a town with the amenities of a medium-sized city. But I had concerns as a writer. I would be far removed from the Literary Centre of the Universe with its book launches, big-name festivals and major publishers. How would I fare so far out of the loop? To my surprise, I found a literary landscape that in many ways is just as vibrant as the one I left behind.
Whitehorse, the territorial capital of Yukon, is located just north of the BC border. The territory has a long history of great writers from Robert Service to Pierre Berton. Yukoners love their books and they love their authors. There are 3 bookstores here: Mac’s Fireweed (an independent), Coles (chain) and Well-Read Books (second-hand). Not bad for a town of 30,000. Vancouver would have 2,000 bookstores if it had the same ratio.
The writing community is active and growing. In fact artists have been flocking to Yukon as its reputation as an arts haven has spread: Yukon has the highest per capita arts funding of all of Canada. The government provides ample resources so we can have our own culture in this remote corner of Canada. It results in an appreciation of the written word beyond the 140 character limit. Readings by local authors, even unpublished ones, get a sizeable audience. There is a large poetry community. Visits by national authors generate excitement. It’s a throwback to another era.
This past January, poet George Elliott Clarke visited the territory. I was one of the event organizers. Clarke has rock star status here. People’s eyes light up when you mention his name. Clarke is also the current Poet Laureate of Parliament, a role whose relevance has been questioned. As poet Carmine Stamino says, “In the U.K., [the role] is a big deal – it’s talked about in the newspapers, names are circulated … In Canada, who cares?”
People in Yukon do.
When word got out about his upcoming appearance, elected officials quickly made space in their calendars for an official Parliamentary visit. In the lobby of the Legislative Building, the Speaker of the House presided over an afternoon of speeches and poetry readings. pj Johnson, the Poet Laureate of Yukon, attended. MP Larry Bagnell, himself a published poet, read aloud one of his poems about the beauty of the Yukon. Clarke spoke about the accessibility of poetry and recited a poem commissioned for the occasion which was later published in local newspapers. The entire event was livestreamed by the Yukon government. The next day 60 locals braved minus 35 temperatures to attend a cabaret evening with Clarke reading aloud, backed by local jazz musicians.
Poets didn’t get this kind of attention when I was in Toronto.
Maybe because we’re bundled up in darkness for half the year, we turn inwards and crave entertainment that feeds the mind. To be sure, we are a small town. There isn’t the same big city blaseness about high-profile people. But considering how much writers have diminished in stature in recent years, it’s refreshing to be in an environment where folks have an old-fashioned respect for the written word and the people who turn them into art.
So if you’ve ever considered visiting Yukon but haven’t... what’s stopping you?
Lily Quan is a writer and editor based in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her work has appeared nationally on CBC Radio and The Globe and Mail. She runs the annual Northern Lights Writers’ Conference, whose featured authors from down south have included George Elliott Clarke, Terry Fallis and Andrew Westoll. For a glimpse of her past adventures in Yukon, visit sourdoughwannabe.wordpress.com.