Mapping the Margins: The Family and Social Discipline in Canada, 1700 1975|
by Nancy Christie
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|A Review of: Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History
by James Roots
Which picture is conjured in your mind by the term, "Yukon
society": the Hollywood-and-Robert-Service-induced romance
of the hedonistic and frequently violent Gold Rush, or the
German-and-Japanese-derived mystery of snowbound tranquility and
As Ken S. Coates and William R. Morrison point out in Strange Things
Done: Murder in Yukon History, the reality can't be both. Either
Yukon society is an anarchic one filled with crime and killings,
or it's the living clich of Canada as the home of peace, order, and
The answer-and let's admit it's a tad disappointing-is the clich.
The number of murders that took place in the Yukon from the Gold
Rush era to the start of World War Two could probably be counted
on the fingers and toes of a prospector who had lost several of
them to frostbite. In fact, Coates and Morrison could find only
six murders in this timeframe that they consider even mildly
For the rest of it, the Yukon was and remains a sparse string of
communities whose inhabitants are all tightly woven into a bond of
mutual dependency. That dependency obviously exists because of the
tenuousness of survival in the very tough climate of a very remote
It also exists because generations of savvy Canadian Governments
(and when have you heard those three words used together in recent
years?) planted a disproportionately large and forceful police
presence in the area as a symbol of sovereignty, well before the
first nuggets of gold were discovered. When the roughnecks started
arriving en masse in 1897, they found the Territory already
buttoned-down seamlessly by the North-West Mounted Police, and not
long afterwards, by one-quarter of the entire Canadian Army.
Determined not to let American frontier violence be imported, the
Mounties gave themselves free rein to invent policies (frequently
illegal and certainly unlawful) to keep the rascals behind the
Alaska border. Notwithstanding Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew,
handguns were flat-out banned from Dawson City. Known, suspected,
and potential criminals alike were given "blue tickets"
that were the Yukon police version of the Hollywood sheriff's
ultimatum to get out of town by sundown.
One thing Robert Service never exaggerated was the spell of the
Yukon. The mystical lure of that land crosses all cultures and
backgrounds. Even in comparison to cities celebrated for their
diversity, such as modern-day Toronto, the Yukon is a remarkable
ethnic melange. It has always been a Last Chance Saloon for the
losers, the dreamers, and the anonymity-seekers of the world.
Considering these factors, the paucity of violent killings between
groups of ethnic losers is astonishing. Coates and Morrison attribute
this paucity to four factors. One was the exigency of mutual
dependency: loners could neither survive long nor accomplish much
without partners and assistance, a fact recognized by the willingness
of merchants to give prospectors a grubstake on trust. Second was
the impossibility of a non-aboriginal desperado escaping alone into
the thoroughly inhospitable wilderness; unless he was born to the
frozen bush, a fleeing rogue would quickly starve, freeze, be killed
by wild animals or swift water, or simply blow his brains out in
despair. Third was the reputation and ubiquity of the Mounties;
with a tiny population clustered into a small number of little
towns, it was easy for them to always get their man. And fourth was
the lack of real interaction between the different cultural groups.
Amazingly, there was only one instance of death by "bushwhacking"
(ambushing strangers) in Yukon history, and few murders for the
theft of gold. Women, more particularly non-Native women, were so
few that murders of jealousy and lust were inevitable, but nowhere
near as frequent as might be expected. There were "no vigilante
deaths no gunfights in Western fashion, no shoot-outs in the
goldfields, and no pitched battles between rival companies, gangs,
or ethnic groups."
So what motivated the half-dozen murders Coates and Morrison find
intriguing? The three Nantuck brothers killed white prospectors
to fulfil their cultural code of honour and possibly because of a
clash of behavioural norms. Peter Fournier and Edward Labelle,
French-Canadians who perpetrated what "may well be the only
case of totally premeditated murder in the history of the Yukon,"
were outcasts who killed for greed. So was the friendless Finn, Ned
Elfors. Alexander Gogoff, another foreign (Russian) outcast, killed
because he was insane. Alikomiak and Tatamigana killed a Mountie
for abusing them while in prison. Paddy Duncan was a Native who
killed another Native, and not coincidentally, was the only one of
these killers who was not hanged for his crime.
These selections seem chosen because they fit the authors' pet
idea-namely, that murder is particularly horrific and frightening
in the Yukon because it upsets the delicate balance of ethnic
distancing and survival-based interdependency. Killings rooted in
any other causes-which were far more numerous-are relegated to a
tacked-on end-chapter disrespectfully titled "A Miscellany of
White Yukoners, meaning those of British background, constructed
and controlled the usual Western institutions of power and authority;
Natives were underlings required for their wilderness skills;
non-British whites were "foreigners" comprised of drifters
and navvies needed for labour. The three groups formed an inextricably
interlocked triangle whose points nevertheless remained separate.
A cross-cultural murder was as shocking as the idea of two points
of a triangle intersecting.
Unfortunately, Coates and Morrison have tackled this very promising
material without a clear idea of the literary genre into which to
slot their book. It is a fatal error.
They are academics-Coates in Saskatchewan, Morrison in B.C.-who
have proven their university chops by collaborating on an outstanding
history of the Yukon, Land of the Midnight Sun (1988), as well as
other non-collaborative works on specific aspects of the Yukon.
With Strange Things Done, they appear to have set aside their
lecterns and made a dithering attempt to combine unadorned popular
history with the visceral thrill of true-crime stories.
The problem with implementing this ambition is twofold. First,
writing popular thrillers requires a commercial storytelling skill
they utterly lack; and second, without the rigorous structure imposed
by academic credibility, they lose all discipline and concern for
Let's deal with the storytelling shortcomings first. Inexplicable
murders, exciting chases, stunningly prejudiced trials (the authors
admit that practically all six of the murder trials were "show
trials"), and sensational executions-how could any reasonably
competent writer fail to make thrilling yarns out of this kind of
wool? How is it Coates and William can't even make them as interesting
as a droning police-blotter account?
Part of the failure resides in the writing itself, including its
tone. The stories deal largely with poorly educated people, and the
authors are not shy about parading their contempt for the often
foolish behaviour that results from this lack of cultivated
intelligence. At one point they actually evaluate a lame alibi with
the outburst, "Such stupidity beggars belief"!
Newspapers world-wide at this time wrote every story with what
strikes modern readers as floridity, hyperbole, and verbosity.
Coates and Morrison depend almost entirely upon contemporary journals
and court records for their information, yet this doesn't stop them
from endless complaining about the "purple prose" of the
era. Surely a historian's primary sources deserve to be treated
with respect and their chronological appropriateness explained, if
only to bolster their credibility as primary sources.
By far the most irritating aspect of the writing is the repetition.
The book reads as if the authors never once scrolled up their
computers to remind themselves of what they had written a screen
or two earlier. In Chapter 4, the references to the act of murder
as breaking "the code/law/spirit of the Yukon" and resulting
in Yukoners feeling "vulnerable" about their "security"
become stupefying. Here, quoted at its full length to emphasize the
point, is the paragraph overlapping pages 63-4:
"Elfors, Bergman, and Anderson were following a familiar Yukon
pattern. They had apparently not known one an other [sic] before
they headed north. Succeeding in the Yukon required partnership-it
was almost impossible to succeed alone-and prospectors and travellers
routinely formed, dissolved, and reformed partnerships. In doing
so, they implicitly accepted the "spirit of the Yukon"
and clearly realized that they needed to trust and cooperate with
one another in order to reach the Klondike. Since the early 1870s,
when the first outsiders arrived to look for gold, Yukoners had
come together in mutually beneficial alliances and then, for reasons
of personality, personal choice, or disagreement about gold-mining
plans, had separated, only to form a partnership with someone else.
The three men moving towards Dawson City had assimilated, through
physical necessity, the central concept of Yukon life. And in
trusting each other-a decision that would cost two of them their
lives-they had likewise adopted the trust in their fellow men that
was basic to survival and social order in the Northwest."
The points repeated three and four times in the above paragraph had
already been introduced and repeated over and over and over again
in the five preceding pages (59-63), and get further recycled on
pages 68 and 71, and then all over again an awe-inspiring three
times in the mere half-page (78) that finally concludes the chapter.
As if that wasn't enough to drive them home, the same points get
reiterated in every single one of the eight chapters, the preface,
and the conclusion. This isn't just bad editing; it is writing so
perversely careless that a conscientious editor should have rejected
the manuscript as unworkable.
The second problem occurs when the authors scrap academic rigour.
They express admiration for themselves as professional historians
placing Yukon murders into a "national intellectual context."
Such a boast demands that they utilize an appropriate theoretical
framework and a structured analysis. These elements are entirely
absent from Strange Things Done. Their absence renders this book
as rudderless as the writing is colourless.
Another example of the authors' self-admiration is their allegation
that they are disproving a myth perpetuated by other writers to the
effect that the various ethnic groups were peacefully integrated.
Who exactly has ever made that claim? It has been written about in
reference to today's Yukon, but who said it about the Yukon of the
period between 1896 and 1939? Coates and Morrison offer no examples
or names to prop up their straw man.
Considering the amount of gold extracted from the Territory, and
the fact that tens of thousands of people rushed to Dawson for the
sole purpose of getting their hands on that gold, it is phenomenal
that virtually no one was murdered for their nuggets and dust.
Coates and Morrison once more wave vaguely towards their usual
"code of the Yukon" explanation and then drift away,
refusing to give this key point the examination it deserves, and
certainly not troubling themselves to cite references in support
of their catch-all excuse.
There was not a single case of white Yukoners murdering Aboriginals
until 1940; why not? Why did whites murder Aboriginals everywhere
else in the Western Hemisphere, but not in the Yukon? It's an
arresting fact, but once again the authors do nothing with it. Does
it have any relation to another statement made five pages later,
that "patterns of murder changed dramatically after World War
Two"? This equally intriguing claim is likewise not substantiated
by even one reference, one speck of detail, or one sentence of
Coates wrote his thesis in 1984 on the historical treatment of the
Natives in the Yukon; he expanded it into a full-blown, strong book
called Best Left as Indians in 1991. He and Morrison should treat
Strange Things Done in the same fashion: consider it an immature
scholar's first-draft, put it aside for several years, and then
come back to put some flesh and muscle on its skeleton. Because
as it stands now, it's possibly the most disappointing non-fiction
book ever written about the Yukon.