Sure, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit all have great things going for them. One is their feisty spirit. So what could be more fun than pitting them head to head to head?
WHEN YOU LIVE IN ONE OF THE TERRITORIAL CAPITALS, it’s hard not to get defensive. After a while, residents of the Yukon’s hub get fed up with being asked how long they’ve lived in the Northwest Territories. Yellowknifers bristle when their hometown is called “Yellowhorse.” And don’t even get us started about what Iqaluit has to endure. Fact is, contrary to what most outsiders assume, the urban North is a tale of three very different cities – each proud, each deserving of plaudits. But which is best? Up Here presents the Northern Capital Smackdown.
By road, you don’t so much arrive in Whitehorse as ease into it, passing cabins and dogyards, then RV parks and “country-residential” subdivisions, the city building into a crescendo as you approach its core. This is a place that loves wilderness so much it sprawls into the countryside for scores of kilome-tres, each resident vying for their own timber-framed slice of heaven. Sure, downtown – a low-slung, century-old neighbourhood on a bend of the pushy Yukon River – has trendy shops and posh eateries, but even here, high heels are rare as hen’s teeth and a business suit will earn looks that say “go back to where you came from.” No doubt, this is a town with ‘tude, and the ‘tude is: I’m a Yukoner. Are you?
Median age: 37.6
Median household income: $66,170
Cost of four litres of milk: $4.69
Average house value: $230,920
Per cent who walk or bike to work: 11.51
Violent crimes annually per 100,000: 1,942
Days with minimum temperature below minus-20: 56.4
Annual sunny days: 301.7
Aboriginal people: 18.1%
Non-aboriginal visible minorities: 4.7%
“Dear ‘Iqualuit’: Sure, your stop signs look cool with the syllabics on them, and you can really see the landscape when there are no trees to block your view. Forest management is bigger around here, though. We’ve got acres of boreal forest right in the city limits. That’s more trees than you could shake a stick at … if you could just reach down to the ground and find a stick, that is. We’ve also got roads, and when we feel the urge to leave the beaten path, Yukoners are tough enough to use the more old-fashioned methods. Two minutes in town and you’ll find yourself making a plan to canoe the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. You’ll buy new boots and clamber over the Chilkoot Trail. People over here are either born tough or get tough – so tough that we have our own word for it. Are you that skookum? I didn’t think so.”– Meagan Perry, Whitehorse resident
Rearing up from rumpled taiga, Yellowknife stands both in allegiance with, and in opposition to, the endless wilderness surrounding it. Unlike the other two capitals, this place boasts a genuine cityscape – bristling highrises that gaze down on oceanic Great Slave Lake. To the south of downtown, the city smears into blank-faced suburbs; to the north, on the shorefront, is kooky, clever Old Town, a triumph of funk over function. Bustling with bureaucrats, Yellowknife is a town that winds its watch and tucks its shirt in. Still, its hard-rock-mining roots are carried forward by Albertan and Maritime tradesmen, and a small but determined troupe of houseboating hippies contribute a Saltspring vibe.
Median age: 32.2
Median household income: $100,468
Cost of four litres of milk: $4.08
Average house value: $302,750
Per cent who walk or bike to work: 24.32
Violent crimes annually per 100,000: 3,708
Days with minimum temperature below minus-20: 110.1
Annual sunny days: 275.2
Aboriginal people: 22.2%
Non-aboriginal visible minorities: 9.9%
“After visiting Whitehorse for the first time last summer, I’m more convinced than ever that Yellowknife is the premiere Northern capital. First of all, I’ve seen mountains, and those aren’t them. I’ll wager our lakes against your ‘mountains’ any day. Secondly, while Whitehorse seems like an excellent place to take a nap, I’m not exactly sure what a person would do there for excitement. Your sightseeing railway car doesn’t quite make the cut in the fun department, although the Earl’s patio at the end of the line is a nice touch. Thirdly, what’s so great about the Klondike Gold Rush? Didn’t it end, like, 100 years ago? We’re still rushin’ around over here – diamonds, adamantium, you name it! Finally, if you’re wondering why we haven’t created a local ale to rival yours, we figured it wouldn’t mix too well with our favourite pastimes: bush-plane stunt flyin’ and ice-road truckin’.” – Adrian Bell, Yel-lowknifer
Like a space-base in very low orbit, Iqaluit is at once futuristic and blandly mundane. For good or ill, there's no place like it -- a wild cluster of beachfront shacks, slapdash townhomes, moon-unit schools, nouveau-riche mansions and the hulking Astro Hill complex, all jostling for space in a barren bowl overlooking Frobisher Bay. The people -- Inuit from every corner of the North, plus Ontario paper-pushers, Quebecois cabbies and Newfoundland hard-hats -- are here for the big wages, but for something more, too: to be part of history, in a boomtown that's ground zero for the most exciting political experiment in modern Canada.
Median age: 28.8
Median household income: $89,088
Cost of four litres of milk: $14.39
Average house value: $328,221
Per cent who walk or bike to work: 32.55
Violent crimes annually per 100,000: 10,905
Days with minimum temperature below minus-20: 135.2
Annual sunny days: 254.7
Aboriginal people: 60.0%
Non-aboriginal visible minorities: 3.3%
Dear Yellowknife: It's generally considered bad form over here to brag or talk smack talk to others, but from one Arctic city to another, you're getting soft. Oh sure, you have a paved road to the outside world, but how long did it take you to build that? Fifty years? And sure, Air Canada flies there, but everyone hates Air Canada. And yes, maybe you offer a smorgasbord of international food in your restaurants, but no Governor General kicks up a fuss by eating raw seal heart in Yellowknife. I guess it takes guts to eat a Big Mac, but that's really not so Northern now, is it? Bottom line: Life in Iqaluit makes you creative. If you don't know how to make your own fun, and don't play well with others, you won't have much fun at all. We're adaptable. You've got a Walmart. Enough said. –Chris Windeyer, Iqaluit resident
Greenlandic explorer Knut Rasmussen once said, “Give me winter, give me dogs, and you can keep the rest.” Is he right? Or should he take that crazy-talk back across the Davis Strait?
Iqaluit: If you share Knut’s attitude, this is the place for you. Nunavut’s capital is chilly, gloomy and blizzard-wracked, with 115 snowy days annually, bitter February lows of minus-32, cool summers, and skies that are sunny just 30 per cent of the year.
Yellowknife: By comparison, the NWT capital is at least bright, and punctuates its icebox winters with short-but-stellar summers. The city is one of Can-ada’s sunniest, and enjoys July highs that flirt with 30. Winters have little wind, zero humidity and just a dusting of snow, but the cold’s downright lunar: For nearly two months, lows lurk in the minus-30s.
Whitehorse: By Northern standards, this is Lotus Land. The climate is moderated by the nearby ocean, meaning winters are balmy, with January tempera-tures averaging just minus-18. The downside? Summers are clammier and cloudier than Yellowknife’s, with el sol shining less than half the time.
Why? Because it makes even Winnipeg’s winters look cold.
The North’s capitals are all playgrounds. But as we all know, not all playgrounds are equal. Some, so to speak, have better swingsets and greener grass.
Iqaluit: The nine-month snowmobiling season would make any sledhead drool – plus, it’s legal to skidoo on the street. Sportsmen hunt caribou at the town limits, char splash in the Sylvia Grinnell River, and the surrounding hills and inlets beckon hikers and kayakers. Indoor options are a mixed bag, from the awesome summertime skate-park to the raggedy half-pint pool.
Yellowknife: With more lakes than land, this is a boating and fishing utopia – but hikers and bikers are tripped up by the outcroppy terrain. Winter wel-comes flatland snow sports – most colourfully, kite-skiing on Great Slave. Indoors, there’s a decent pool and arenas, and a new fieldhouse will offer all-season soccer pitches.
Whitehorse: Here, people work to play. Take your pick: There’s extreme sledding at White Pass, horseback riding at Fish Lake, canoeing down the gur-gling Wheaton, ice-climbing at the waterfront and road-cycling on the Alcan. And for fun not under the sun? Head to the city’s stupendous sportsplex, built for the Canada Winter Games.
Why? Mountains, plus the waterslide-sporting Canada Games Centre.
Frontier flavour is why many of us live here. Some territorial capitals live and breathe polar culture; others could be Anywheresville.
Iqaluit: Here, hunters butcher seals on the beach, women tote babies in amautis, and artists flog soapstone carvings at high-end eateries. Sure, nowadays igloos and dogteams are few and hiphop is heard as frequently as Inuktitut, but this is still the real Arctic deal.
Yellowknife: The NWT’s capital is Northern and not. On skyscraper-flanked sidewalks, foxes scamper and businessmen brave swarms of mosquitoes. In the ’burbs, monster homes turn their backs on the lakes and forests. In Old Town, flamboyantly bearded houseboaters scoff at all things southern. And then there’s the Gold Range, where the rip-roaring past is always present.
Whitehorse: This town is posh: lawns are lush, lattes flow like water, every third person is a yogi, and spandex-clad cyclists abound. True, there are dog-mushers, cabin-dwellers and bears, but the Yukon capital feels prim and domesticated compared its wilder, woollier territorial cousins.
Why? Because for the longest time, the local pizzeria served muktuk.
The territorial capitals are a human stew, teeming with indigenous people, Euro-Canadians and immigrants from far-off lands. None of the three cities’ ethnic mix is like the other, but all are surprisingly diverse.
Iqaluit: Inuit are the majority here, forming 60 per cent of the population. But don’t think they’re homogeneous – they hail from Greenland, the Mackenzie Delta and everywhere between. Among whites, Quebecois and Maritimers form notable subpopulations. Non-white, non-aboriginal people are few.
Yellowknife: The NWT’s capital is United Nations North: Whites predominate, but there are also 4,000-plus Dene and Inuit, 600 Filipinos, and big groups of Africans and Armenians.
Whitehorse: Compared to the other two capitals, this city looks white-bread. Less than one in five locals is aboriginal; other minorities are only half as numerous as in Yellowknife. Surprisingly, though, it has the North’s highest proportion of immigrants – mainly Germans, Americans and Brits.
Why? Because, on the Up Here editor’s soccer team, a half-dozen languages are spoken.
When it comes to lawbreaking, the three capitals are at once innocent and guilty. Gangsterism, random shootings and related urban horrors are almost un-heard of. On the other hand, drugs, booze and domestic violence mean that for many people, friends and families are their worst enemies.
Iqaluit: Crime here mainly means domestic beatings and drunken sex crimes, the rates of which are horrific. In almost all cases, victims know their victim-izers. For those who don’t, the biggest danger is getting caught in the crossfire.
Yellowknife: Booze and delinquency abound in the city’s downtown, fuelling fights and the occasional mugging. Steer clear of back alleys and the groper-prone Frame Lake Trail, though, and the city seems as safe as anywhere.
Whitehorse: While the suburbs can seem as peaceful as Switzerland, the downtown has a reputation for nighttime drug-fuelled break-ins and ugly, unpro-voked assaults. More than the other capitals, violence here feels random and menacing.
Why: Because, with Canada’s grisliest crime-rates, the three territorial capitals all lose.
Think of the world’s great cities and you invariably think of places that are vibrant, creative and fun. It’s the arts that make them so. How do the Northern capitals stack up?
Iqaluit: There’s a few good galleries of Arctic carvings here, and a miniscule local museum that hangs exhibits like the annual Cape Dorset print collec-tion. The Alianait Arts Festival gets raves, too. Sadly, though, there’s not much of a music or theatre scene.
Yellowknife: YK boasts the North’s best museum, a handful of non-schlocky art shops, the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, and an ever-changing array of local bands. No question though – this place puts money first, creativity second.
Whitehorse: In the Yukon, seemingly everyone is a novelist, a troubadour, a filmmaker – hell, there’s even a dude who turns bicycles into art. The terri-tory pumps way more cash into its arts industry than does the NWT or Nunavut, which is both the cause and effect of Whitehorse’s awesome arts scene.
Why: The place has a professional theatre company. Yep, you read that right.
You can come North for a million reasons, but if you’ve got kids, nothing sends you scurrying south faster than fears about the schools. Do the territorial capitals make the grade?
Iqaluit: In many ways, Nunavut’s capital is at the back of the class. It has almost twice as many high-school dropouts as university degree holders, and families commonly move south so their kids can get better schooling. Offerings at Nunavut Arctic College are slim, though the Akitsiraq law program is a shining exception.
Yellowknife: The NWT metropolis scores best out of the three capitals in educational attainment: It has the fewest dropouts (19 per cent) and the most university grads (22 per cent). In recent years, Today’s Parent magazine rated both Weledeh and Mildred Hall as being among the top schools in Canada.
Whitehorse: With a population of 20 per cent dropouts and 20 per cent university grads, Whitehorse is only slightly less educated than Yellowknife. The local Yukon College is by far the North’s most impressive, with a sprawling campus, a vast library and academic programs ranging from Northern studies to welding.
Why: Because YK’s schools are smart, but Yukon College might as well be called North U.
A good job, access to the outdoors, a vibrant nightlife – they’re all great, but for almost everyone, their home is their castle. Having a nice abode is essen-tial – and in this, the three capitals are not created equal.
Iqaluit: In a place where each scrap of lumber arrives by sealift, Iqaluit is understandably expensive. Scads of ticky-tacky townhomes have been thrown up since division, offering little more that great views of Koojesse Inlet. On the upside, jobs in Iqaluit often come with housing – and few newcomers plan to stay long enough to buy. the average value of a residence is $328,000.
Yellowknife: For the most part, YK’s housing is at once expensive and uninviting – the worst of all worlds. Bland suburban bungalows go for $400,000-plus; slapdash trailers and characterless apartment blocks house thousands of residents. Only Old Town has charm – and good luck buying there. The av-erage value of a residence is $302,000.
Whitehorse: In recent years, the city’s real estate market has exploded – but it still offers the cheapest digs among the North’s three capitals. Better yet, there’s wonderful diversity, from metrosexual urban condos to a plethora of “country residential” acreages tucked away in the boreal wilderness. The av-erage value of a residence is $224,000.
Why: Best homes, best locations, cheapest prices. Any questions?
It’s an old joke: Question: What matters more than your income? Answer: Your “out go.” But the thing is, up North the cost of living is no laughing mat-ter.
Iqaluit: Thank goodness most housing here is subsidized – otherwise, you’d pay $2,100 monthly for a two-bedroom apartment. And thank goodness there are few roads, because gas is $1.47 per litre. And thank goodness you don’t need groceries – oh wait, you do. Just avert your eyes and hand your credit card to the person at the checkout.
Yellowknife: You might make money in YK, but you’ll spend it, too. A two-bedroom apartment rents for a ghastly $1,400. Gas is $1.19 per litre. And the price of food is high – and gets higher each spring when the ice-bridge goes out.
Whitehorse: This is by far the cheapest of the capitals. A two-bedroom apartment rents for about $800, and as of press time, gas was just $1.02 per litre – far lower than in the other two cities. Food prices tend to be on par with Yellowknife.
Why: Because rental rates are half what they are to the east.
Say what you want about the outdoors or the arts, for most non-indigenous Northerners, the main reason they’re here is the money. And right now, each of the three capitals is a good place to put some cash in your pocket.
Iqaluit: The Nunavut capital has a weird economy, fuelled by government and runaway population growth. As long as the bureaucracy struggles to fill its ranks and burgeoning growth drives a constant need for new housing, there’ll be plenty of work in Iqaluit. For the unskilled, though, the unemployment rate is high: in 2006 it was 7.9 per cent.
Yellowknife: It’s for good reason that Dene call this Somba K’e – money place. For years, Yellowknifers have profited from the diamond boom and the recession-proof government bureaucracy. In 2006, unemployment was low (5.7 per cent), and wages are a third higher than in Whitehorse, with the aver-age family earning well over six figures.
Whitehorse: For years, the Yukon’s hub was in the doldrums, but recently it’s come roaring back, faring better than anywhere else in Canada. For the first time in a decade there are ample jobs with good wages. In 2006 the unemployment rate was 7.4 per cent.
Why: Because for a decade, the city’s economic engine has been hitting on all cylinders.