Mapping the Margins: The Family and Social Discipline in Canada, 1700 1975

by Nancy Christie
ISBN: 0773526986

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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 jovial harmony?
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 good government.
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 sensational.
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 region.
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 Murder".
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 substantiation.
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 analysis.
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.

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