The Yukon River runs faster now than it did before the Alaska Highway, before the flood of white people from the south, and the dam on the river that makes it rush through Whitehorse so quickly that the water no longer freezes in the winter. The White Horse rapids, for which the city was named, disappeared with the dam. There were indigenous people who’d lived around the river, among the canyons, where the city now sits. Many of them staked out homes by the water, in Moccasin Flats and Whiskey Flats. But by the late ‘80s, they were pushed up the highway, far enough that you’d need a car to get to the waterfront. An amalgamation of Southern Tutchone, Tagish Kwan and Tlingit, they called themselves Kwanlin Dün—the people from where the water runs through a narrow place. And it would be more than 20 years before they had land by that water again.
This isn’t the story of the entire people. It’s not even the story of the select few who brokered the deal to get Kwanlin Dün their land by the river. It’s about one man who played his own small part in that story and gave it his all; about a man who is always finding one small part to play and giving it his all. It’s a story about picking up the pieces after something breaks, and keeping memories alive without being imprisoned by the past. It’s about acts of kindness becoming successions of kind acts. It’s about one good heart, how a community will build around it, and what that community can achieve.
When Montana Kennedy Bailie has a tough day at work, it’s not TV or snacks or the bar that he turns to—it’s the slopes. “I told ‘em I wasn’t feeling very good and they said ‘Oh okay, take the day off’ and I went up there, strapped my skis on, and I probably went out for a four-hour ski. Man did I ever feel good.” It’s a gift, he says, that his uncle Gary gave him.
Gary Bailie’s been running the Kwanlin Koyotes ski team since 2000, and Montana was one of his first pupils, with the club from when he was eight years old to when he was 15 and joined a competitive ski team. Gary cut and groomed kilometre upon kilometre of trail, leading right out of the Kwanlin Dün subdivision; he built a shack, filled it full of his own gear and donations from others; and he opened the doors wide to the community to use anything for free. “Not many people in the Yukon, or in Canada, will provide the whole community with cross-country skis and groomed trails,” says Montana. Gary has trained more than 100 kids to cross-country ski, free of charge. “What he also provided for these kids—sometimes they didn’t come from very structured backgrounds—he provided them a safe place to go after school, he provided them with food,” says Montana. “Myself included.”
Jenelle Cousins, 19, also met Gary on the ski trails when she was a little kid. “I just thought he was a nice guy. He was my ski coach for a while, I helped him coach for a while, and a friendship grew out of that.” Gary has a habit of attracting people into his life and propelling them along with him. His ski team has attracted donations, top-quality mentors, and students who would become his best friends. And his yearly music festival is starting to do the same. As well as helping Gary on the slopes, Cousins has been helping him at the lighting console since she was 10, working the Blue Feather Music Festival, a two-day rock concert that Gary organizes every year. Its primary aim is to introduce youth to music as a creative outlet. It has been a family-friendly, liquor-free event for 16 years, incorporating Kwanlin Dün culture and kicked off with a community feast—get fed, feel safe, be inspired. Buffy Sainte-Marie is on her way back for her second performance at the festival, and Gary’s aiming to set up music workshops between the artists on the bill and the young musicians in his community. Gary’s a lighting technician and does most of the shows himself, but this year Cousins is going to be running some light shows all on her own. Gary won’t be looking over her shoulder. He’ll be letting her hold her own while he does, as Cousins describes, “Gary things”—getting coffee, talking to people, making sure everything is going smoothly.”
Lance Burton, a board member for Blue Feather who’s been volunteering with the festival since it began, designing every poster, and sometimes even playing his own music, says one of the tenets of the festival is involving youth, even little kids, as much as possible. “We have kids partaking in all aspects of production, behind the scenes, working on designing. [Gary’s] right there beside them throughout the whole show, teaching them, showing them the ropes.” Gary will also likely be carrying his granddaughter Essence. He believes a child’s place is at work—not doing labour, but being an active part of their community.
Gary has become a force of nature in Kwanlin Dün and Whitehorse, and parts of his community are beginning to change around him. “Positive attracts positive and negative attracts negative,” says Montana. “And he’s never been anything but positive.”
Inside the fence of the Whitehorse Correction Centre, two police officers caught a little kid skulking around with a bow-and-arrow. He was a sight to behold: brushcut, squirrels on his belt, a hunting bow, arrows and a little hunting knife, wary and scared. The boy said he’d been hunting squirrels and his best arrow—the one he’d spent his whole allowance on—ended up inside the jail, so he’d come to retrieve it. Even if that meant scaling a tall fence with barbed wire at the top. The officers could scarcely believe the kid had climbed it, but then again, how else would he have gotten in? They let him go, amused by the little hunter, and warned him to behave or else he could end up inside that fence formally.
This was Gary, and this was his life around the Takhini suburb of Whitehorse in the 1970s: hunting in the woods, fishing the McIntyre Creek, playing baseball on “the Mets.” But really, life centred around skiing. And skiing in the North at that time centred around a French Catholic priest named Jean-Marie Mouchet. At the end of World War II, Father Mouchet came to Canada. He travelled around many Northern communities, finally settling for a while in the Gwich’in and staunchly Anglican village of Old Crow, Yukon. A priest in everyman clothes, respectful and friendly, he was well-liked; his Catholicism, not so much. Though he had trouble swaying anyone to his faith, he first planted the seeds of what would become his greatest legacy: a ski program that was so much more to so many people. The first program, in Old Crow, began in 1955, and in 1962 there were four Gwich’in skiers on the podiums at the All-Alaska Cross-Country Ski Races in Fairbanks. Father Mouchet was invited to bring his skiing prowess to Inuvik, NWT, and the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program was born. It would produce Olympic skiers Sharon and Shirley Firth, as well as countless others—such as acclaimed Inuvialuit artist Angus Cockney—to whom skiing would become a way to centre themselves, to learn discipline and be in nature. For Gary Bailie, who joined the program when he was eight years old, after Mouchet had brought TEST to Whitehorse, the ski trails would become a personal church, a place to go for inspiration and a place to learn. In Mouchet, Bailie would find a profound friendship and a perspective that he would carry with him throughout the many adventures and trials of his own life.
After graduating from secondary school, Bailie got his ticket in carpentry, but there wasn’t much construction happening in Whitehorse, so he started working at a bar: maintenance in the daytime, DJing at night. He was the first person in town to have Aerosmith albums, Queen, Judas Priest, Van Halen. One night, a band passing through asked him to do some lighting for them and Bailie immediately got a feel for it. He started doing more shows and travelling around to see what other lighting technicians were doing. In 1983, Bailie hit the road. He worked tech and lighting for shows all around Canada and the States, working on shows for the Beach Boys, 54-40, Trooper, Johnny Winter. It was eight years before he’d be back home.
Near the end of his time away, Bailie returned to Whitehorse to visit family for a few weeks. On his way back to Edmonton, where he was working for a lighting company, he had an encounter on the Greyhound bus that would change his life. He met a beautiful young woman named Jolie Angelina McNabb. Later, much later, he would find out that her traditional name was Blue Feather. She was carrying a guitar and travelling south from Whitehorse to be with her boyfriend. They got talking and soon were eating their meals together. Their paths diverged, Bailie continued on to Edmonton, and that, it seemed, was that.
A year or so later, Bailie found himself working in Vancouver and skiing in the mountains and it hit him that this wasn’t his sky and these weren’t his trails. Maybe it was time to go home. He caught another Greyhound bus, stuffed two duffel bags and a lighting console into the cargo compartments, and headed north. He settled in, got back on the trails, and one night at a hockey game he saw a familiar face underneath a familiar mop of straight black hair. It was Jolie McNabb. They got to talking, hanging out and, as the song goes, “fooled around and fell in love.”
There are pictures of McNabb throughout Bailie’s home, among the artwork, among the old Blue Feather festival posters. A beautiful smile, a hint of mischief in her eyes. What you can’t see in these pictures, of course, is the pain she carried underneath. She was shuffled through foster homes as a kid, and experienced the worst of the system. She was met with abuse after abuse in foster homes, and then when she was put in a permanent home in Whitehorse, the abuse got even worse. Her adoptive father beat her, killed her pets, abused her sexually. She would later tell Bailie that if she could ever come to terms with her own experience, she would devote her life to making sure no other kid would go through what she did. No child should ever go through that.
McNabb never gave in to the false solace of drugs and alcohol until after she and Bailie had a daughter. She would disappear, come home later and later, until she and Bailie realized that their daughter couldn’t grow up in that lifestyle. They separated, though McNabb would come home for birthdays and Christmases, and would spend her time with her daughter during moments of clarity. But in 1999, in a moment of despair, McNabb took her own life. She was 25 years old.
“I’m gonna teach my granddaughter to go in the bush and to sit down and be quiet and be still,” says Bailie. “It’s like meditation. I used to do it on my own. I’d find a spot where it was mossy and I felt comfortable and I would just sit still. And animals would just come by. You’re sitting there, not moving and you see rabbits come by, ermines slinking by—they don’t even know you’re there.”
I’m with Bailie on the Father Mouchet Ski Trails, which start right off the road in the Kwanlin Dün First Nation subdivision. It’s late fall. There’s no snow yet, but a thick frost settles on everything each morning, and it isn’t until mid-day that the sunlight is strong enough to melt and evaporate it once more. By the time we start our walk, the sun is already starting to set and the air is cooling down. It won’t be much longer until the snow falls.
Bailie sees wolves sometimes on these trails. He’ll look to his side and there’s a wolf, perfectly still between two towering spruce, and then it’s gone. Coyotes behave much the same—still, then gone. In fact, it was after one such encounter that he settled on the name for his ski club, the Kwanlin Koyotes. “Right in between two trees was a coyote just sitting there, hair all fluffed out, like a lion—the most beautiful coyote I’d ever seen. Then he was gone. When you think of a coyote, they’re beautiful just like our children: They’re full of energy, they’re curious, they’re resilient, they’re survivors.”
We pick up branches and small fallen trees as we walk, clearing the trails of debris. He’s built a network of trails, some named after kids that have come through the program—the “Shorty” trail is named after a little girl who would always take a little shortcut that the Koyotes then made into an official trail—and some that the kids themselves named, like the “Grand Canyon,” a valley between two hills that may very well look intimidating to someone small. The entire set of trails is named in honour of Father Mouchet. In Bailie’s own way, the Koyotes are continuing a philosophy that Mouchet had brought with him: Get children active while they’re young, teach them discipline, teach them self-confidence and show them kindness and support.
“I really think that he was a true man of God,” says Bailie, “because he came, he did good work. And then he passed away and he left and it’s like, wow, the world is such a better place for him having been here.” Bailie stops short of calling himself a protégé of Mouchet—Bailie’s had many mentors over the years, and is doing his own thing with the Koyotes, concentrating less on the competitive side of skiing and more on the philosophical—but it’s clear the effect Mouchet had on him. “He was a very kind and positive person. He was really understanding. He was quiet in his ways. And he’d come out here—skiing was his lifestyle, as it is mine. He always came to me and visited me and we had lots of great talks. He was always thinking. He realized things were changing and he was always adapting.” Bailie talks a lot about adaptation—about the Kwanlin Dün and the other indigenous peoples of the North having to adapt to a massive migration of outsiders to their lands. But he’s always positive and pragmatic, saying that we need to live together, be kind to each other and build community together.
Bailie likes to break down words in his own way, or make little quips that he’ll drop here and there when the timing is right. One is “common unity,” his expansion of “community.” Another saying of his is, “Money is not the only currency. I’m looking for satisfaction.”
It was never Bailie’s strict intention to dedicate his life to community service, but after his wife’s death it just kind of happened. He never forgot what she went through, or her dream of helping kids. “I was trying to keep myself busy and I was trying to heal myself, and her dream was a noble dream. She genuinely wanted to help people.”
“I look back and think, ‘What could I have done to make a difference?’ and I really don’t know. I still really miss her today and I know she’s in a good place. When you have tragedy in your life, you just want to make the world better because of it. It’s like the healing balm of tragedy. In healing yourself you want to help others. That’s kind of where it started.”
He used the money she’d left behind to help build a youth shelter, and McNabb’s wake was the first iteration of what would become—unbeknownst to him then—Blue Feather, a family-oriented, non-profit rock show with the aim of connecting young people with positive-minded musicians. “The Blue Feather is a symbol of hope,” says Bailie. “By people creating music and expressing themselves, they’re not keeping it bottled up.”
Blue Feather Music Festival has grown from a one-night show with local bands to a two-night festival that’s beginning to attract big names. This year’s festival will have happened by the time you read this, on the weekend of November 4, and on the bill was Buffy Sainte-Marie, her second time performing for Blue Feather, and Sass Jordan. Bailie’s set up a “Rockberry Jam” music workshop to connect youth with the talent he attracts. And once the festival is done, with snow already on the ground, it’s time to groom the trails and start up the Koyotes. Really, it’s a continuation of effort. “All the kids at cross-country skiing,” says Cousins, his lighting protégé, “you can see how he makes a difference [in their lives]. He pushes them, gives them some purpose. Kwanlin Dün isn’t the greatest place to grow up, but he gives [kids] something to look forward to.”
At the same time, he’s helping his daughter raise her own daughter, Essence. His granddaughter is the light of his life. He lights up when he talks about her. He spends a lot of time looking after her. His day job, too, demands a lot from him. As capital projects manager for Kwanlin Dün First Nation, he manages all of its buildings, constructing new things here and there, such as a recently-completed roof over their outdoor skating rink. It’s where he gets his money, but he also gets some satisfaction from the job.
In 2012, the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre opened. It’s a huge building, with an exterior shaped to mimic the flowing water and clay canyons of, Kwanlin Dün’s traditional land. Bailie was the operations manager for Kwanlin Dün on the project, and a driving force behind it. There’s a longhouse for events, artists’ cabins, a gallery of art and artifacts near the lobby, an open-concept kitchen, classrooms and a sacred space. The walls are wood planks. Everywhere are symbols of their culture, words in their languages. Bailie walked me through the structure, barely concealing his pride but making sure to note that he was just part of a team—as he does with all his projects, downplaying his sometimes oversized role.
“People ask me, ‘How do you manage to do all that?’” says Gary, “And I don’t know, I just do it. I start to think about multitasking. By going out [skiing] it makes me think about how to be more efficient, and how to make things go smoother. And also, many hands make short work. When you have a good team there’s really not much you can’t accomplish. And we are building community along the way. That’s what I found out: this is how you build community.”
See the magazine for a rundown of past winners of Northern of the Year.