March 27, 2007

In honour of Free Pour Joe's

Free Pour Joe's in Whitehorse has been shut down.

In honour of a bar that somehow encapsulated all the flavours, smells and yes, the vices of the Yukon, here's a profile of Joe I wrote for The Beaver magazine in 2005.

Order a rye and Coke at Joe English’s bar in Whitehorse and two things become clear. Joe pours the demon drinks your mother warned you about. And those nursing cocktails at the bar like it that way.

“We have good drinks, free pour drinks. Anybody who wants a drink with something in it, they come here,” brags 67-year-old Joe, cocking his head to the left to favour his one good eye.

It isn’t correct to say Joe is the only bartender in North America allowed to free pour, but he’s probably the last doing it. “The law is you gotta give an ounce,” he says. “You can give more, but you can’t give less. They don’t really specify how you go about it, so we give a lot more.”

Liquor laws in the Yukon are relatively new, having arrived long after Europeans entered the area as trappers from both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Russian American Company in the 1700s. Later, missionaries tried to limit the impact the loose morals and liquor habits of miners were having on the natives. In 1894, the land of gold got a commissioner. In 1896, Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie and George Carmack found gold on Bonanza Creek, sparking the rush. And in 1897, the Yukon judicial district was created. The RCMP enforced Canadian liquor laws on a largely American population, which swelled from about 5,000 to 30,000 during the rush. The Yukon commissioner remained basically in charge of liquor until the 1970s, when partisan politics arrived. Today’s Yukon Liquor Corporation was born in 1977.

Old ways die hard in the land of the midnight sun, and nowhere is that more true than at Joe’s. He makes drinks for his grey-haired regulars in a small 7-oz glass, filling it three-quarters with spirits and adding a splash of pop or juice. Ask for more mix and Joe says he’ll give you a bigger 10-oz glass that he calls a “bucket,” but word on the street is he’ll kick you out. Don’t ask for a pint of draught: Joe carries only two brands of bottled beer. And if you’re a regular, the first drink is always free.

A joke sign on wall is disturbingly accurate: “Don’t order doubles. They won’t fit in the glass.”

Joe’s is a living museum of forgotten Klondike junk. Lights covered in 1900s-era lampshades cast a dark yellow glow. The walls are choked with donated stuff: eight old rifles (none work, says Joe), six knives and/or swords, two antique bullet displays, shovels, pickaxes, machetes, handcuffs, a bronze spittoon, magazine adverts, an old iron stove, and Joe’s favourite, a black and white picture of a topless woman in bloomers. He calls the picture gold rush soft-core porn. In a way, Joe’s bar is gold rush porn.

Because the Yukon remains somewhat locked in another era, it contains some of North America’s last gasps of true saloon culture. To sell booze, the law says you must also have rooms available to sleep in. In Dawson City, the RCMP is hoping to get a bylaw enacted to make it illegal to urinate on the street after bars close. And the Caribou Hotel in Carcross, first built in 1903, and famous for its liquor drenched floors, and its parrot, Polly, who (legend has it) came up the trail in 1898, sang opera and cussed, and then died at 125-years old, just lost its owner in a grisly murder -- somehow fitting for a place that looks out of the Wild West.

Joe knows times are changing and southern sensibilities are creeping in. On everyone's lips at Joe’s is the city’s new smoking ban in bars. Joe says he’ll go down fighting, but figures he’ll lose. “There’s not many places like this left, with the owner behind the bar,” he says, pouring a drink without measuring. “Eventually, we’ll probably go out the way of the dinosaurs.”

January 22, 2007

Climate change has officially started scaring me

My 30th birthday is less than five months away. So, I still consider myself kind of young. But even I’m noticing how strange the weather is compared to the days of my youth. Heck, even 10 years ago, when I arrived in Ottawa, the town was still considered to have authentic winters. I lived in the Byward Market and often skated to university on the Rideau Canal once it was frozen in January or February. My friend Dave and I used to take off to the Gatineau hills outside Ottawa to go cross-country skiing on winter weekends.

Ten years later, things have changed. Ottawa, like most of Ontario, just got snow. In January.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, who I interviewed from Ottawa this morning, mentioned Winterlude — the city's winter festival— looks like it will survive this year, as snow and cold weather has finally arrived. But so many recent winters have been the same nail-biting affair for Winterlude organizers. And this in a city considered one of the "coldest" capitals in the world.

Things are way too warm up here in Whitehorse, too. Watching the Weather Network last night, I was dismayed to see a forecast for the next few weeks that is way too warm for a city north of 60. This is January and we're seeing highs over 0C almost regularly. Will February see temperatures more often than not above 0? Will March see t-shirt weather? A swim at Long Lake in April?

Talking with longtime Yukoners, this sort of January weather was the stuff of fantasy 20 years ago. But if the last few years are any indication, it's only going to get more profound. Climate change is officially happening way faster than even I, cynic that I am, could have anticipated.

So here is the reason for my rant: I'm hopeful climate change will become the issue that reframes politics for people. We need to realize that our decisions as consumers now have more impact on global politics and the environment than our votes do. Think of yourself as a member of the mass consumer party of the world.

When we look for people to blame for climate change, and when we reflexively point our fingers at politicians, we wrongly let ourselves off the hook. In some ways we're hoping our politicians have the temerity to regulate us into greener habits. But why can't we just regulate ourselves? Why can't we start to realize that small decisions really do add up to big problems? Why don't more of us bike to work or live closer to the city and thus the places we need to go on a daily basis? Why can't we arrive at the supermarket with our own bags rather than requiring plastic bags made from petrochemicals, or turn down the thermostat when we don't need heat? Why is Ontario touting nuclear energy as the only way out of its "energy crisis” instead of telling people they have to use less?

Cutting back doesn't really hurt all that much. We're over-comfortable as it is. Would driving a bit less or wearing a sweater at home or buying less pre-packaged food, or heck, even growing our own food really make life hell? Nope.

Someone described climate change to me as an "existential issue." Climate change, unlike most issues — save ones like nuclear arms — threatens everyone equally. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor: your world is going to get warmer. And you can't buy your way out of this one. I hope more people, like me, wake up and realize that. As a result, I plan to do something I've never done before this year. Grow some of my own food. That will lower the world's temperature by exactly one billionth of a billionth of one degree. But at least I will be doing something positive, rather than adding to the problem.

Doing nothing and living as we have been now means doing harm. It’s as simple as that. Evil is more often than not banal. Watching like a spectator when someone like Hitler is taking power, or when the world's climate is dangerously warming due to carbon dioxide emissions, is the same sort of banal evil. Doing nothing is really doing something.

We’re going to have to change at some point very, very soon. Maybe when Tuvalu goes under the Pacific permanently, or when polar bears disappear from Hudson’s Bay, or when the Aral Sea goes the way of the dodo, we will realize, collectively, that we have no more time to ponder what to do. Judging by how profoundly the weather has changed in my 30 years here, however, I’m guessing that day is coming very fast. Better to start changing step by step now than waiting any longer.

December 15, 2006

Christensen retires

Ione Christensen baked Christmas cookies for reporters before inviting them to her home in Whitehorse to announce her retirement from Canada’s upper house.

It was the sort of touch that underlined her good nature, and spoke volumes about the difficult decision the 73-year-old Yukon senator had to make.

“My husband has been suffering vision loss for the last three years and it’s reached a point where he really needs assistance at home,” said Christensen on Thursday.

“He’s supported me for over 30 years in all of my political (endeavors) and it’s not been easy. He needs me at home now.”

Christensen officially retires from the Senate at the end of December.

Most politicians are partisan and polarizing, but Christensen is the opposite — a tall, eloquent elder stateswoman who commands respect and admiration.

After she ensured everyone had a snack and a drink of sherry — from cups bearing the Senate coat of arms, no less — Christensen recalled her past, which saw her blaze the trail for women politicians in the Yukon.

She became the territory’s first female justice of the peace in 1971.

In 1975, she became the first woman mayor of Whitehorse, winning re-election in 1977.

Two years later she became the first female commissioner of the Yukon, resigning in the same year after being approached by several parties to run in the coming federal election in 1980.

“Up until that point, I had no political affiliations at all,” said Christensen. “So I got a bunch of books at the University of Alberta on political science and I read through all different parties, and thought, ‘Where do I fit?’

“Everything fit well with the Liberals.”

Christensen lost the 1980 federal election to Erik Neilsen, who ran for the Progressive Conservatives.

She went on to chair several boards, committees and hearings in the Yukon, as well as serving as executive director for myriad organizations, including Petro-Canada’s northern operations, and the drug and alcohol treatment centre in Whitehorse.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed Christensen to the Senate in 1999 after former Yukon senator Paul Lucier died.

She will retire with about 22 months left before she turns 75, the imposed retirement age in the Senate.

She could easily keep going, she said, but eschewed the typical tributes and parties for retiring senators in Ottawa.

“I felt that I just wanted to go quietly into the sunset, back to the Yukon,” she said.

Being from the furthest region from Ottawa saw Christensen stay in the city and come back to the Yukon an average of one week out of every five.

But with her husband’s failing eyesight slowly preventing him from walking alone, recognizing people and even turning on the television, Christensen knew it was time to hang up her hat.

“I was away from home almost three-quarters of the year,” she said. “That is not always the most satisfactory. It’s not easy.”

Still, she’s sad to leave: she reveled in her job as a senator and is proud of many of her accomplishments.

Those include sponsoring amendments to the Yukon Act, changes that 20 years earlier prompted her to resign as the Yukon’s commissioner, as they were not written into legislation.

Christensen finally changed that as a senator.

Her last speech in the Senate was on the Conservative government’s recent literacy cutbacks.

She plans to focus on her advocacy work for people with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder now that she’s returned to the Yukon.

The Senate is an important part of the democratic process, as many bills are written by urban MPs who don’t understand the realities of rural Canada, she said.

Those include changes to animal cruelty laws that, if passed, would make it illegal for many Yukoners to hunt, fish and live traditional lifestyles.

Christensen has pushed for changes; whoever takes her Yukon seat will have to do the same.

And that’s the most difficult part of her retirement: the unknown of what happens now, she explained.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently introduced a bill that would create provincial and territorial plebescites to consult voters on appointments to the Senate.

The idea is modeled on the Australian system, and would ostensibly allow people to put names forward and for voters to select their senators.

Christensen doesn’t like it.

“It leaves a lot of questions to be answered,” she said. “It doesn’t say exactly how people can be nominated — if they can be appointed for more than typical eight years.

“This is a backdoor approach; I feel it’s definitely just a political approach. Mr. Harper promised to move towards an elected Senate. Through this bill he is doing what he promised to do. And I really think he probably has his fingers crossed and is hoping there’s an election before it can go through.”

If the changes do pass the Senate could be split into two factions — appointed and elected senators — and the regional powers provincial and territorial premiers have could be significantly reduced, she said.

“It raises more questions than it answers. If it went through it would make a profound change. There has to be more dialogue,” said Christensen.

“It doesn’t mean to say it’s wrong. But you never get a system totally free of problems. You just change one set of problems for a new set of problems.”

Harper has been reluctant to appoint senators, as he has long pushed for a Senate based on voting, not appointments.

His only Senate appointment has been Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, who fills his role in cabinet from the upper house, not the House of Commons.

Ten Senate seats remain empty in the interim, Christensen noted.

She hopes someone is found to replace her sooner rather than later.

“My role is totally different than any of the senators in the provinces,” she said. “The three territories, we only have one senator and one MP (each).

“We try to act as a backup for our MPs, to take up the slack. Larry (Bagnell) is very busy. We do a lot more constituency work than other senators do. We’re more hands on.”

But now that she’s retiring, Christensen is looking forward to getting re-acquainted with the Yukon.

Her last hike over the Chilkoot Trail was in 1998.

She’s done it 21 times already, and despite having had her hip replaced, she’s planning to do it again.

November 23, 2006

A traveler's guilty confessions: a jumbled dispatch from my recent trip through Southeast Asia

June, 2006, Laos: By candlelight, within the close music of a steady rain, we sat in a long-house in a Khmu village on the Nam Ta River, eating supper with the village chief. A small boy with a runny nose wearing soiled pants lay on his leg trying to sleep. We had come by kayak to visit these villagers, who live in a protected park where no development can occur. And we had questions.

"How long does it take to drive to town," asked one young Canadian girl, innocently. Once translated by our guide, the chief and others gathered at the table laughed. To get to town -- Luang Nam Tha -- the villagers must walk five hours through the jungle, then hire a tuk-tuk to drive them to the small town, once they meet a dirt road, said the chief.

Ruth, a friendly Danish woman, said she felt as though she had never been this far from civilization. Indeed, we were in the middle of virgin Laos jungle, surrounded by jagged mountains coated in trees and dramatic mist. There was no electricity, no running water -- nothing but bamboo-and-thatch huts, pigs, chickens, ducks, cattle, water buffalo, dogs, and children as young as five carrying newborn babies.

A young British guy, full of idealism, asked the chief if he was elected democratically or became the chief by inheritance. We learned that he is elected. And we nodded our heads, as if telling the chief we approved of his civilized ways. It was an awkward moment.

As I went to sleep in a long-house, listening to the rain, in the most complete darkness I have ever experienced, I started wondering: why exactly am I here? A postmodern man in a modernizing country asks himself this question many times during his travels, let me tell you. I have yet to answer it.

I do not buy into the Western traveler's ideal of finding 'authenticity' buried deep in some jungle. During the busy season, the jungle village we visited receives tourists three times a week. Attached to many houses were small solar panels for electricty, to power televisions. One girl carried a bag of rice by putting the strap around her head. In the bag played dance music on a radio. Like many of the treks I have done to villages off the path in Southeast Asia, the children here know exactly what to do when cameras came out and were pointed at them. They posed, they giggled, they provided perfect shots for travelers to take home and show their friends.

I am reading Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. What an amazing writer. Henderson is a rich brat of an American who goes to Africa seeking spiritual rebirth. He arrives in far off villages hoping to stop his constant need to become something, and to just be. I see me in him. I think Westerners are endlessly becoming, endlessly searching the future for a new way, a new dream, a new identity. And we're sick of it. In this village, surrounded by animals, I realized what we have lost despite our achievements: a connection to bigger things, to the realities of life, death, survival. Our dinner, a duck, was killed then plucked of feathers in front of us. Several of the people on the trip felt squeamish about this -- but where do they think their food comes from? Would they prefer their poultry to be raised in a factory farm, or allow it to waddle around free, in a village? How ironic it is that we can call these people 'savage' yet in the south of Laos, the savagery of the Americans is everywhere, in huge bomb craters and unexploded bombs that tear legs off children to this day.

By 8:30, the village was pitch black except for a few candles. I felt tired and fell asleep. I somehow fell in tune with nature in a way that is impossible among the lights and distractions of civilization. But still, why was I here? I enjoyed meeting these people and seeing how they live. I felt connected to them, despite our differences. I envied the simplicity of their life. But people like me, who pay big dollars to hire a guide to take them to far off places, are part of the problem. Becky says backpackers are part of the "new colonialism." She's right. We come this time seeking authenticity; we leave having helped to destroy it, after capturing 'authenticity' on our cameras. After taking their picture, the village kids demanded to see it on my digital display. They're part of our world whether we want to admit it or not.

All of us on the kayak trip experienced guilt as we realized the scope of the new colonialism.

But despite the pessimism, I think that in the end Westerners are still good people, with good motives. While it rained on us kayaking down the river, every one of us — two Canadians, a Brit, and two Danes — lay back in the kayak and opened our arms to receive the rain. We fell silent and smiled. We have purity and goodness, just like the village people. We have spirit.

I wish travelers would look around and see the true authenticity of Laos — a country desperate to have what we have. Who are we to hope that they don't modernize and that they remain 'authentic'? The more thoughtful travelers recognize this and find excitement in the increasingly smaller differences between people. In Laos, for example, there is no machismo. Men hold hands, rest their heads on each other's laps on busses, walk arm and arm down the street. Life is easier and less governed by silly sexual stigmatisms here. That's authentic, at least.

I found satisfaction to the question I posed to the chief. "Do you see the future as being good for your people, or bad?" I asked. I expected the chief to speak of his fears of the slow creep of modernity squeezing out his traditional ways. But instead, he spoke hopefully. "For many years, our country was at war. Our people couldn't have crops, rice paddies. They constantly had to move. Now, we have time. We can have crops, we are not hungry. Now our children can go to school."

That's authenticity, I think. It isn't ideal, it's just real.

Bell customers charged for phantom Beaver Creek calls

(from November 22nd edition of the Yukon News)

Check your cellphone bills. Carefully.

Bell cellphone customers are, once again, finding massive, unforeseen charges on their monthly phone bills — this time for phantom long-distance calls to and from Beaver Creek.

The charges appear to stem from calls dialed in Whitehorse to local phone numbers that are being bounced to a cellphone tower in Beaver Creek.

But Bell is treating those bounced calls as “long-distance,” and will bill customers 30 cents per minute even though the problem appears to lie with the company’s overloaded Whitehorse cell network.

The continuing billing problems have Bell contract-holders, many of whom believe they have “free” local calling on evenings and weekends, wincing every time they have to open their bills.

“I’m scared to get my bills now, because I don’t know what’s going to be on them,” said Rochelle Thompson, a 32-year-old Yukon College student who owns a Bell cellphone.

“It’s an emergency phone; I don’t use it an awful lot,” she said. “But every time I turn around, it’s another $10, $15. I don’t have anyone to call long distance. If I do, I use my landline.”

Thompson’s latest bill includes a $7.50 charge for long-distance calls to and from Beaver Creek.

She didn’t make any long-distance calls during the period and has never visited the small community, she said.

Her frustrations with Bell are piling up.

Thompson wrangled with the company for hours on the telephone to reverse a $76 charge for one screensaver that she downloaded on the recently launched, but poorly explained, 1X network.

Bell forced Thompson to agree to sign a $42 contract for six months of unlimited web browsing before it would scratch the charge, she said.

Thompson, who is taking business administration courses, is disgusted with Bell, but has no way out because of massive fees the company charges for breaking cellphone contracts.

“They’ve got me tied. I either pay the bill every month — whatever they want to charge me — because there’s nothing I can do; I don’t have the $400 to cancel that contract,” said Thompson. “I’m trying to keep a good credit rating, but this is screwing me every month.”

Thompson demanded Bell explain how she had incurred long-distance charges to and from Beaver Creek.

She got a rather nonsensical response, she said.

“They informed me that what it was is when the tower’s too busy, that calls getw bounced to Beaver Creek and there’s nothing they can do about it,” said Thompson.

“They told me, ‘We’re going to erase it this one time, but then there’s nothing we can do about it.’ I freaked out,” said an exasperated Thompson.

Sameer Singh is another customer bitten by the latest Bell Mobility fiasco.

Singh received a $116.70 cellphone bill for the period of October 7 to November 7.

Similar to Thompson’s bill, more than $50 of Singh’s current bill stems from long-distance charges for calls to and from Beaver Creek.

“I’m mystified. I imagine some of them are local calls, but some of them I think are completely out of nowhere,” said Singh.

Beginning October 20, his bill itemizes 68 calls over a one-week period to or from the small community.

Before October 20, there is no mention of Beaver Creek on the six-page bill.

After that date, however, Beaver Creek is everywhere on the page.

Singh isn’t sure the calls are just local ones being bounced to Beaver Creek.

“I don’t normally get this many calls — that’s 68 calls in seven days,” he said. “That’s like 10 calls a day. I don’t get nearly that many.”

When Singh called Bell Mobility demanding the charges be removed, he was told Bell would investigate.

But, to his amazement, he was also told if Bell found the charges were not the company’s fault, he would be billed a $36 “investigation fee.”

Thompson got a different resolution.

And two of her friends who also incurred long-distance fees were told they would have to buy a $12, unlimited long-distance contract before Bell would scrub the fees, she said.

Officials with Bell Mobility Canada, and a local representative for Bell, Latitude Wireless and NMI Mobility were contacted, but did not return phone calls.

Thompson wants to end her relationship with Bell but can’t.

“I don’t want them to have any more of my money.

“They screw you … I’m so tired. I’m so stressed out,” she said.

July 18, 2006

Is the Yukon blind to blindness?

(from the July 10 edition of the Yukon News)

After work on June 28th, Samantha Oruski and her boyfriend Steve were hungry for sushi.

As they always do, the couple — both lawyers and both legally blind — had their guide dogs Gilbert and Caruso at their sides as they walked along Main Street in Whitehorse.

But at the door of Tokyo Sushi the staff said: “no.”

No dogs allowed, not even for blind people.

“We walked in the front door and she (the restaurant’s hostess) wouldn’t let us in,” said Oruski. “They said we could park the dogs outside, but they weren’t going to let either of the dogs in.”

In cities across southern Canada and the United States, a person accompanied by a working dog who is refused service can call the police.

Charges can be laid and fines can be meted out.

But unlike most jurisdictions in North America, the Yukon has no specific legislation protecting the rights of people who require working dogs.

At the restaurant’s door, Oruski, a Crown prosecutor based in Whitehorse, knew she had stumbled into an unrefined area of Yukon law that both protects her right to service accompanied by her dog, but also allows a restaurant to refuse her entry with her dog without fear of charges or fines.

She pleaded her case without success, she said.

“We said, ‘they’re working dogs, they’re allowed in.’ But they said, ‘no’ — either we could leave them outside or we could have take-out, but they could not come in and sit down.

“So, we left.”

The dogs were not allowed inside the restaurant because staff feared they would hurt business, said Cindy Chung, a waitress at Tokyo Sushi.

“They said that they were scared the dogs would scare away the customers,” said Chung, who was not present during the incident.

Chung’s manager was not available for comment.

Oruski will file a complaint about the restaurant with the Yukon Human Rights Commission this week.

The Yukon Human Rights Act protects the right to services of people who require working dogs, but there are no fines or charges that can be laid when those rights are infringed upon, said Lynn Pigage, an intake officer at the commission.

The act protects those with guide dogs under its “duty to accommodate” provisions, said Pigage, speaking hypothetically about scenarios such as Oruski’s.

Once a complaint is received and evaluated, the commission works to resolve the problem with those involved, she said.

“We try to settle it. The remedy (could be) that the person is always allowed in that place of business,” said Pigage. A business could also agree to change its policies, she added.

The Yukon’s duty to accommodate law applies to public services and private businesses, said Pigage.

“Under our legislation, anything that is a service that is offered to the public” must allow a person with a working dog access, she said. “Even for health reasons, they’re allowed in places.”

Oruski has a hereditary eye disease that has destroyed her peripheral vision.

Though she has some central vision, she struggles to see what many people take for granted.

“It’s like looking through an empty pen canister,” she said. “If I’m looking straight at you, I’ll see you, but if I happen to look off, less than a centimetre, I’ll miss you.”

Gilbert, her four-year-old guide dog, is a male golden retriever/black Labrador retriever cross is black and has “big floppy ears.”

“He’s pretty un-intimidating,” said Oruski.

Gilbert helps Oruski navigate unseen obstacles, like sandwich boards, cars, people on bicycles and pedestrians, wherever she goes.

She simply needs him to live, she said.

Gilbert wears a harness and is readily identifiable as a guide dog, she said.

Her boyfriend’s guide dog is a German Shepherd.

Both were harnessed when the couple tried to enter Tokyo Sushi, she said.

Though the latest incident has hurt and angered her, similar things have happened in the Yukon, said Oruski.

She has been refused service in stores because she “doesn’t look blind.”

Motorists have honked at her as slowly walks along roads and crosswalks, she said.

But there’s nothing she can do: Gilbert slows his pace whenever there is an obstacle.

“I think a lot of people, as soon as they get north of 60, they think it’s a different world,” said Oruski.

“There are disabled people here and there are disabled people south of 60 too. You’ve got to remember that.”

People should remember that not all of those who are blind look like a stereotypical blind person, with a cane and dark sunglasses, she added.

“My eyes look normal, but I don’t see. I don’t look like a geek, I’m sorry. My eyes don’t look goofy, I’m sorry.”

Discrimination is a often a sad fact of life for those with disabilities in the Yukon, said Bernice Montgomery, a service co-ordinator at the Whitehorse office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

“That’s the way the community often looks at people with disabilities,” said Montgomery, referring to Oruski’s story.

Being refused service at a restaurant because you have a guide dog with you is “absurd” and “out of the Stone Age” she said.

Oruski’s boyfriend is from California, where laws are more advanced.

Refused entry at the restaurant he couldn’t understand Oruski’s powerlessness to assert their rights, said Oruski.

“He said, ‘can’t we just phone the police?’ I said ‘no, there’s nothing they’ll do,’” she said.

“I was embarrassed for the Yukon, for the fact that there was nothing I could do. He couldn’t believe that there was any place in North America that could actually get away with this.

“I was embarrassed that all I could do was phone the Human Rights Commission and it’s going to take months.

“He said, ‘you mean anybody can say no?’ I said, ‘well yeah, they can.’”

Oruski doesn’t want to be malicious and put the sushi restaurant out of business, she said.

But, “If these people say no, eventually, can the whole world say no? And then what? I use my dog to get from A to B,” she said.

“The bottom line is I am blind.”

Yukoners subsist on a high-mileage diet

(from July 7 edition of the Yukon News)

On a kayak trip along the Nam Tha River in northern Laos, my fellow paddlers and I stopped for a supper graciously prepared by Khmu villagers who live along the river’s banks.

As women in robes pounded rice in a vat with wooden poles, pigs, chickens and ducks swarmed their feet, trying to scavenge any spilled grains.

A man walked past carrying a live duck, disappeared, then reappeared a few minutes later: The duck was dead, its body swinging limply in his hands.

“Oh, that’s so gross,” said a female traveler from Calgary.

“No,” I said, “that’s dinner.”

Lugging a backpack through Laos and other Asian countries taught me that food not only comes from the land, but also from a land’s culture.

Like the Khmu villagers, many Asian countries are still connected to the land and to their food: They grow rice and vegetables, raise pigs and chickens, or buy their rice, veggies and meat from local farmers in sprawling outdoor markets.

They don’t say “gross” when they see a dead duck, either.

Things are different here.

Our affluence somehow convinces us hinge our most basic needs to unsustainable ways.

Think of the distance you have from food, both abstractly and physically. Take that Florida orange you had for breakfast, that Thailand pineapple garnishing your Albertan ham and PEI potatoes, or the sugar from Haiti and coffee from Indonesia inside your daily cup of Tim Hortons brew.

Or, watch your friends eat meat, yet shudder at the sight of blood.

Our food usually has more kilometres under its belt than calories. According to World Watch, ingredients in a typical American meal travel an average of 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres before appearing — like magic! — on a plate.

Canadian meals travel similar distances; the typical Yukon meal probably travels all of that, and then some.

Ruth Lera, a co-ordinator with Growers of Organic Food Yukon, wants to change that.

On Wednesday, Lera threw a barbecue at the BYTE office in Whitehorse, to feed and teach young people about their food.

It was called “Food from the Yukon, for the Yukon.”

“I want to talk about where our food is coming from in the world,” said Lera. “Is there any of this that we could be growing locally?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

At the barbecue, locally made beef sausages and donated moose-meat burgers were served.
Everything else on peoples’ plates, from condiments to nacho chips to cheese, came from the supermarket — and thus somewhere far, far away.

That allowed Lera to get people thinking.

Where’s that tomato from, she asked?

“Probably California.”

Where’s the flour used to make the bun from?

“I don’t know … Alberta?”

Lera taped a map to a door and stuck arrows on countries where food had come from.

Even in Whitehorse, as evidenced by Lera’s map, the world is our oyster.

So, what can be done to curb our wastefulness?

Lera gave youth a handout that suggests they buy more local products, read labels closely, and even plant a garden.

A few people at the barbecue bragged that they had a garden or a greenhouse to grow their own veggies. Yes, even north of 60, veggies will grow.

But what really needs to change is our culture. The next time you’re in Vancouver, pick up an apple at a supermarket and marvel that it’s from New Zealand, not the Okanagan Valley less than 300 kilometres away.

The next time you’re at the supermarket in Whitehorse, try to find anything locally grown and produced.
If you can, buy it.

If you can’t, find out why and demand that you have access to our own produce.

The only way a culture changes is when its people change.

Some have gone so far as to adhere to something called the “100-mile diet,” only eating food harvested within 100 miles of home — difficult in the Yukon, but you get the drift.

Lera will be holding a kids day at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse on July 13, from 3 to 8 p.m. to continue teaching people about their food.

“I’ll be using the McDonald’s method,” she said. “The parents will be bringing their kids, so I’ll be able to speak to the parents, too.”

December 16, 2005

Government’s decision buttresses telco monopoly

(from December 16 issue of the Yukon News)

Yukoners have long endured an uncompetitive telephone market, and that situation is not likely to change in the communities anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Northwestel won the cellular portion of the Yukon government’s new Mobile Communications Solution, a government project that will bring cell service to 17 Yukon communities.

“This announcement brings an improved and expanded wireless communications technology to the Yukon, which will greatly benefit all citizens,” said Highways and Public Works minister Glenn Hart in a release.

But many watchers of the fledgling cell phone market saw the decision a little differently.

Northwestel’s competitor on the bid, ICE Wireless, is trying to elbow into the Yukon cell market and rev-up competition.
Just last week, ICE’s Whitehorse cell network went online.

ICE is owned by Inuvik’s New North Networks, which has been in the business of community cell, mobile radios and internet services in the Northwest Territories since 1990.

In fact, it was ICE that proposed a community cell infrastructure plan to the Yukon government in the first place.

But now that Northwestel has won the right to build what ICE had dreamed of, some are using the dirty M word: monopoly.

“We’re disappointed but we’re not really that surprised,” said ICE president Tom Zubko on Thursday.

“Northwestel operates on government subsidies to maintain a monopoly, and a huge amount of their revenues come from federal government subsidies.”

The government’s decision is “not out of character for governments, period,” said Zubko.

“Does it go to opening up that sector for competition? No, it certainly doesn’t.”

Many saw potential in the MoCS system, as it could allow people in communities phone options other than Northwestel.

Was Northwestel interested in community cell service before ICE came along?

“No. On the record they weren’t. They had no intention of expanding cell service,” said Zubko.

Where did their interest come from?

“Well if you have a monopoly and somebody’s challenging your monopoly, what do you do?”

Northwestel first became interested in community cell services after the government released a request for proposals, said company spokesperson Anne Kennedy on Thursday.

“The Yukon government had announced that it was going to be providing cellular service. We responded to the bid,” she said.

Northwestel does not get government subsidies — other than $76 million it received from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission six years ago, she said.

The government’s decision on the contract came down to a request for proposals.

Points were awarded for local business involvement, as well as First Nation participation — which both ICE and Northwestel have, through the Vuntut Development Corporation and Dakwakada Development Corporation, respectively.

But in the end, the decision was based on price, said Zubko.

ICE couldn’t compete.

But some question whether the playing field was level.

“I think that they bid a price that is substantially less than ours, in terms of the subsidy they wanted,” said Zubko.

“They’re spending more than we were planning on, and they’re charging the government less. If we used that basic formula, we would lose a lot of money over 12 years. We’re not prepared to do that.”

The largest cost in ICE’s proposal was for the services it needed to buy from Northwestel to allow its cellphones to link up with landlines.

“Suffice to say, it was the most expensive portion,” said Zubko.

Did Northwestel quote ICE the same prices it used in its own bid?

“I can’t comment on that,” said Kennedy, adding that the competitive bids are private and not released to the public.

Zubko said he would pursue the matter and that he is keen to see both bids.

As part of Wednesday’s deal, the government will invest $2.8 million over the first seven years of the MoCS system’s 12-year span, said Highways and Public Works spokesperson, Darren Butt.

Dakwakada is investing $2 million, and Northwestel an undisclosed amount.

It is expected that Burwash Landing, Teslin, Destruction Bay, Beaver Creek, Haines Junction, Pelly Crossing, Upper Liard, Carcross, Mayo, Old Crow, Tagish, Watson Lake and Dawson City will receive cell service in 2006, said Butt.

By 2007, Carmacks, Ross River, Faro and Stewart Crossing will likely come online, Butt said.

MoCS could be the death knell for ICE’s grand visions of community cell service.

The company hoped to expand into most of the Yukon’s communities.

After the MoCS deal, if ICE hopes to enter those communities served by Northwestel, it will have to erect its own infrastructure, because its network and phones are completely different than Northwestel’s.

That would mean not only two competing services, but also two competing network infrastructures.

Is that expense realistic in a market this size?

“Well, I don’t think it’s realistic in the smaller communities, but I think it’s realistic in Whitehorse and probably a couple of others,” said Zubko.

But Northwestel apparently feels there’s plenty of competition in the telecommunications market.

“There has been competition in the marketplace up here for a number of years,” said Kennedy.

Since 2001, long distance callers have been able to use phone cards, she added.

“We’re certainly open and welcome to competition. We’re not a monopoly up here; it’s just that there aren’t other competitors in certain areas.”

The announcement puts ICE back to its original business plan, which did not include any of the MoCS considerations, said Zubko.

“We’re fine. We’ve got seven locations in the Northwest Territories.

“We’re probably ahead of our targets for the first week of our operations,” he added.

“It’s not something we plan on dwelling on a whole bunch. We’ve got a great system that we’re putting in place.”

Asked if New North has been doing for 15 years what Northwestel all of a sudden displays interest in doing, Zubko, said “That’s right.”

The government is expected to announce the second part of the MoCS project — a mobile radio system — next week.

Northwestel has also submitted a bid on that, said Kennedy.

December 15, 2005

Caribou Ball a bit of a bust

(from December 15 issue of the Yukon News)

Full disclosure: I went to the Caribou Records Decade Ball on Saturday night with high hopes for fun.

But a fun time was not to be had.

The sound quality was poor. The artists were low-key. Nobody danced on the out-of-the-way dance floor. The organizers were unorganized, and the emphasis of the evening seemed less focused on entertainment and more focused on artistic back-patting.

Whoa … did I just say that … in Whitehorse!?!


Insert gasping crowd noise here.

My mom always told me that if I can’t say anything nice, to say nothing at all.

And while I’m ignoring her advice, the chronically self-supportive Whitehorse arts community seems to live by it.

Example: Kristina Mercs, concert producer at Caribou Records, received dozens of compliments but nary a criticism after Saturday’s show, she said.

“I keep hearing that people are very happy, that they had a really great time, that it was great music, that it was a great party,” said Mercs on Wednesday.

“People really dug it.”

But nobody was digging much from where I was sitting, in the back third of the Convention Centre.

From there, people couldn’t hear very well at all, save for the muddy-sounding explanations of why we had to wait 15 minutes for the next artist, or Mercs telling the crowd that we needed to be quieter.

Several were a bit miffed and said some nasty things that I will not repeat.

The apparent disconnect between what the arts community told Caribou, and what the average Joe or Jane anonymously said after the event (this is Whitehorse, after all) comes down to expectations.

The evening was billed as a “ball.”

But instead, it seemed more like a private party for the Caribou Records people and their friends.

“I think the people who were there for a good time came for another show, and didn’t get it,” said Michael Clark, artistic director of Nakai Theatre, who attended the concert.

Though more than 300 people paid $25 for a ticket, as the evening dragged on, many of them went home.

But despite some missteps, the ball had highlights.

Caribou’s newest artist, Indio Saravanja, broke the evening’s low-key mold with some upbeat, rhythmic music.

His voice and his personality are bright and entertaining, and he will likely mark the Yukon even more boldly on Canada’s musical roadmap.

Saravanja was the evening’s cornerstone performer, backed up by Caribou’s other artists Kim Beggs, Kim Barlow, Anne Louise Genest and Hungry Hill.

The indie label’s Cuban band, Valle Son, did not play, but will come to the Yukon in the summer, said Mercs.

Two distinct crowds emerged at the event, she said.

“I realize that there was a select group of people that definitely were into more of a party, a dance, a ya-ya sort of thing.”

But, she added, “If you know the artists who are on there (Caribou’s label), you know that it’s not a huge party/dance/rockout scenario.”

I’m part of the apparently forgotten group that does not know much about Caribou Records.

But was it my mistake to attend with improper expectations, without first learning more about the label?

Not everybody thinks so.

“Given that it was the holiday season, and that it timed itself perfectly to take over after people’s boring holiday parties, they had an opportunity to cash-in on a different crowd, which they didn’t do,” said Clark.

“They missed an opportunity to raise Yukon music, and Caribou Records, to a new market.”

The Decade Ball was extremely low-key — a concert that would have been more at home in the Yukon Arts Centre, where the emphasis is placed on quiet, attentive listening.

The Convention Centre is a venue where quiet, attentive listening is often difficult.

“If you’re trying to showcase the music, then you’re probably not going to put it on in the Convention Centre,” said Eric Epstein, artistic director of the Yukon Arts Centre, who also attended the ball.

“Maybe the people who came to hear the music were disappointed. All those artists could be better served in a different venue.

“People who came for a social time had a good time; I saw people I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said.

“I enjoyed it.”

“I thought it was great,” added Celia McBride, Nakai Theatre’s artist-in-residence.

“But I say that with a clause — that is the Convention Centre is a beast. If you’re standing further than halfway back, you’re not a part of the music show.”

The main culprit for the bad sound was an old-school condenser microphone that most of the artists used.

When turned up, it fed back and projected crowd noise so the levels were left lower, said Mercs,

“It’s very sensitive to room noise, and the Convention Centre was a bit of an unknown in that department,” she said.

“We didn’t realize how much sound people would be making.”

And so, those who had shown up for a ball were simply told to “shush.”

While Mercs feels the condenser mic “provides a unique experience for the artist,” it should be pointed out that it provides a bad experience for listeners in big rooms.

But bad sound is only one part of the equation.

Acts were late; sets were shortened.

The whole show got off to a late start, because users of the room took down the main stage, said Mercs.

That ate up a bunch of preparation time.

The breaks between artists were a great opportunity to get up, get a drink, then come back “and get ready to pay attention again,” she said.

But the straw that seemed to break the backs of many concertgoers was when the host yelled, “Don’t go home!” as she announced a 20-minute break.

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Saravaja had just finished his set; the bar was set to close in 10 minutes; and the dancing band that everyone had patiently waited for, The Licorice Whips, wasn’t coming out anytime soon.

Like many, many others, I left.

“The evening wasn’t just about party and music and celebratories, it was also an opportunity for Caribou to put on a show that the community could come and appreciate the diversity of what we have going on,” said Mercs.

Too bad many showed up who would have appreciated more concern for simple entertainment.