The Alaska Highway The Dark History of a Romantic Icon

Yukon is famed for the Klondike Gold Rush, when 30,000 gold-hungry hopefuls descended into Dawson City. But First Nations and scholars have argued, it was the Alaska Highway that left a longer, harsher, more complex legacy.

Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/FACEBOOK)

The Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction, Yukon.

It’s a sprawling building of stone, log, aluminium and soaring glass windows. On one side, some of the tallest mountains in Canada, rugged, snow-covered and speckled with mountain sheep. On the other, crocuses are pushing through the shoulders of the Alaska Highway.

One wing of the building houses displays of bead work, stories, and treasures belonging to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. In an adjacent wing, animal skulls and glacial dioramas welcome visitors into Parks Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve Visitors Centre.

Next month, as they do every year, thousands of tourists will start stampeding through this centre. They’ll have driven up the now-famous Alaska Highway, many on the trip of their lifetime.

What many don’t know, is just what it took to get them there.

American military constructing the Alaska Highway. (US Signal Corps/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

It was an invasion.

In the height of the Second World War, 10,000 American soldiers descended on the Yukon, more than doubling the territory’s population.

The Americans were concerned with protecting the western flank of North America from Japanese attacks.

So they were there to build a highway. A 1,600 mile long winding, bumpy, gravel feat of American engineering, connecting Alaska and the lower states. It would soon become the romanticised route to the wild north, popularised through books, movies and propaganda.

A Canadian committee investigating potential routes for the highway in 1941 noted:

“In so far as the Yukon Territory is concerned there seems no doubt that the Kluane Lake alternative, which is available on the ‘Central A’ route, would benefit the Yukon as a whole to only a small degree unless extensive secondary roads were built.”

This would be the route chosen by President Franklin Roosevelt the following year. A $138 million highway (not adjusted for inflation) down the shortest path of least resistance through territory to Alaska.

This was as much consideration the previous occupants of the territory (First Nations, settlers and local government alike) were given by the Canadian or American governments.

The sudden influx of outsiders, the new infrastructure and access to previously isolated areas, and speed with which the transition happened, affected local peoples in ways little-considered by Washington politicians. Ways incongruous with the ubiquitous word of the time: “progress.”

This was also the beginning of a permanent settler population greater than the number of First Nations people in the territory.

Traditional territories of First Nations in Yukon. Note the Alaska Highway enters the map at Watson Lake and exits at Beaver Creek. (Courtesy of Environment Yukon)

There are 14 First Nations in Yukon. The highway slices through the traditional territories of eight of these nations. These include: Kaska Dena, Teslin Tlingit, Carcross Tagish, Kwanlin Dun, Ta’an Kwach’an, Champagne and Aishihik, White River, and Kluane First Nations.

While First Nations in southern Yukon had been dealing with white traders for more than half a century in 1942, besides Whitehorse, southern Yukon had little development and so little reason for settler habitation or government interference.

This all changed with the highway.

Front cover of "Together Today for our Children Tomorrow". (Courtesy of Council of Yukon First Nations)

In 1973, Chief Elijah Smith of the Yukon Native Brotherhood (precursor to the present Council of Yukon First Nations) presented “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow” to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This document outlined the grievances First Nations in Yukon held with the colonial government, and proposed solutions to benefit future generations. This would be the beginning of a decades long land claims process between the Canadian Government, the Yukon Government and the First Nations. Six of the eight First Nations along the Alaska Highway settled their land claims between 1995 and 2006, and are self-governing First Nations. White River and Kaska Dena First Nations opted to not sign land claims.

In the document grievances associated with the highway construction had its own section. They included offering First Nations people money and jobs to leave the bush while the war was ongoing, but leaving no means of support once everyone had left.

“The money left with the Americans. The traps were rusted and the cabins in need of repair. Many did not go back to the traplines. Some of us moved into shacks on the edge of White communities, and there were no jobs,” says "Together Today for our Children Tomorrow".

Then came the bureaucratic machine of government.

“Then came Indian Affairs. They made up the Band lists. Then came welfare. They invented the Indian Village,” says the document, “this made it easier for administration.”

It is this bureaucratic influx included removing more children from their families to be put in residential schools. By 1946, 438 more children were registered for residential schools in the Yukon.

In 1977, the Canadian government conducted an inquiry into the potential repercussions of building a pipeline following the route of the highway. Investigations included testimonies from people affected by the construction of the Alaska Highway.

Georgina Sidney, a Teslin Tlingit woman testified to the social disruption of the highway,

“People worked together here, they hunted together, they took care of each other. Now, no one is taking care of it, and the next door neighbour -they don't care.”

Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank spent more than three decades in the Yukon, working with local people, notably working with elders and First Nations researchers to create books and works to preserve local stories, and therefore knowledge. Her specialty was “the Gravel Magnet”, as the Alaska Highway was called, because soon after construction people started moving to its borders. She testified at the inquiry that the highway had caused social and economic upheaval.

In a later paper she said, referring to First Nations in southern Yukon,

“Older people identify ‘the highway’ as the time when traditional institutions began to break down.”

Cruikshank goes on to say that, “Older Natives overwhelmingly maintain that the highway brought alcohol abuse and an alarming amount of violence, grief and further social disruption.”

As the highway’s construction went on, overhunting became a problem in Southwestern Yukon. Therefore, Kluane National Park and Reserve was established, right over the hunting and trapping grounds of the Champagne and Aishihik, White River, and Kluane First Nations.

Indian Affairs even acknowledged at the time that the local animals had been decimated by American soldiers;

“The Indians, therefore, who from time immemorial had hunted and trapped over the area without decimating the supply of big game animals have now to bear the brunt of rehabilitation.”

According to Cruikshank, the effects of not being able to hunt on the game reserve were amplified once the jobs from the Americans dried up.

A further effect of the highway was disease.

As the Americans descended into Yukon, smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough, influenza and other diseases devastated First Nations in southern Yukon. Between 1942 and 1947 death rates were higher than birth rates in the region as people from the outside brought in wave after wave of sickness. For this the United States Army and Canadian Government did express concern, and provided some doctors, but not nearly enough to slow the epidemics.

The frustration of First Nations peoples outlined “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow” wasn’t modernity, but exclusion from it. The highway, and other colonial apparatuses, disrupted social and economic institutions and spread devastating sicknesses in southern Yukon, but left no room for enterprise or traditional activities. Trapping, which had once been for food and trade, was no longer sustainable because of low animal populations, and the creation of the national park. It also brought colonial policies and bureaucracies into areas that had been previously relatively independent.

Yukon portion of the Alaska Highway. (Douglas Perkins/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The highway wasn’t all bad. Many people noted during the inquiry, First Nations and settlers alike, that the highway meant ready access to wider resources, and enabled travel to visit relatives. Today it drives tourism, which is the largest private sector employer in the Yukon, which includes cultural centres.

According to Tourism Yukon’s 2016 report, visitors spent $303 million in the territory last year alone. Much of this was along the highway in the communities of Watson Lake, Teslin, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Burwash Landing and Beaver Creek.

But as tourists thunder down the asphalt serpent bisecting the territory, the story they hear can be partial and distorted.

Burwash Landing, now the seat of Kluane First Nation's government. (Courtesy of Yukon Archives).

This year marks 75 years since the highway’s construction. It’s a big marketing year for tourism in the territory. Coupled with the Canada 150 celebrations, it’s the year of anniversaries.

Screen capture of Travel Yukon's post on Facebook in April 2017. (Bronwyn Beairsto/FACEBOOK)

Social media posts like the one above from Travel Yukon, and the one below from the tourism magazine The Milepost, talk about celebrating the highway. Many highlight wartime nostalgia and unity as highway characteristics.

Screen capture of The Milepost's post on Facebook in April 2017. (Bronwyn Beairsto/FACEBOOK)

It’s a pretty war story of international cooperation to build a highway in eight months through settler-unchartered territory.

The alternative doesn’t look good on the front cover of a tourism booklet.

“The importance of marketing in Alaska Highway mythology cannot be overstated,” says Laura Pitkanen in a paper about the mythology of the route. She says that private and public sector marketing teams have reinforced northern stereotypes and a nostalgia for the pioneer narrative of the highway.

Some local settler-run museums have embraced the heroic narrative.

MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. (MacBride Museum of Yukon History/FACEBOOK)

MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, is the largest museum in the territory. It which holds more than half of the territory’s artefacts.

Last October the museum held an evening of war songs and 1940s cocktails for the opening of their exhibit on the highway. Locals dressed up in period era clothing and danced to period music, mounted curls women's hair, top hats for the men.

The exhibit's walls are filled with pictures of soldiers digging, soldiers smiling, soldiers doing their laundry.

“The Alaska Highway was the crucial turning point for the Yukon,” says executive director Patricia Cunning. "The highway is an important part of the Yukon’s identity and key to the growth and opening the Yukon and Alaska. It should certainly be commemorated."

At the time of publication, MacBride Museum's exhibit was the only one celebrating 75 years of the Alaska Highway (though it is incorporated into permanent displays of museums and cultural centres throughout the territory).

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