By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

Long enduring turn-of-the-20th-century associations assigned from the dislocation of the Klondike Gold Rush and Jack London’s brand of American literary naturalism, to many outsiders, the Yukon is a hard place that bends only to climate and the whims of biological and socioeconomic determinism. Even with majestic views of mountain vistas and the quietly enchanting northern lights, it remains thought of as a high, untouchable place governed by its remote location and the financial speculation that brought in prospecting to supply the settlement of its boomtowns. The threat of danger lurking in boreal shadows (the territory is also home to cougars, wolves, and three types of bears) seems to dictate any question of free will out of the equation—forget the defiant collective project of an active underground arts scene. The Yukon is a place where things happen to people.

So when non-profit arts collective Something Shows reaches out to New Feeling and offers to fly someone from the co-op out to review Wonderhorse, it sounds like an invitation to break spells and witness progress as much as an opportunity to get a read of the local scene.

Operating on the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, otherwise known as Whitehorse, last fall, Something Shows inaugurated Wonderhorse as an answer to a long-felt local lack. Arriving in town in time for the beginning of Labour Day weekend, Whitehorse is in varying states of transition and abandonment. The territory’s capital and its most populous city, Whitehorse is far from a ghost town, but downtown’s windswept façades invite comparison. Some restaurant and business owners remain to rake in the last of the tourist money before closing up shop for the season, and many residents have left town for the long weekend (it’s also hunting season), but they’ll be back.

I don’t expect the first act I’ll watch will be a nine-year-old DJ/violinist, but Philly Groove steals the show at an Elk’s Lodge Battle of the Bands packed with tweens and complete family units. When he wins the competition, he earns a gig opening for Portland, Oregon’s Black Belt Eagle Scout the next day. While most festivals brandish terms like “all-ages”‘ in their marketing, they often fail to engage the younger segments of their communities; here in small town northern Canada, programming is shaped for youth in ways that legitimize their presence and give a stage to their burgeoning talent—give them a reason to stay.

Philly Groove photo by: Ashley Swinton

Speaking over the phone with program coordinator Zach McCann-Armitage post-fest, he emphasizes the importance of programming the festival for all-ages. 

“Knowing it can be shitty growing up in a small town and there’s so many issues facing our society, a lot of that is just falling onto young people,” he says. “Giving them the tools and opportunities and exposure to things that are happening and feel vibrant and can create connections—I think if festivals have a utility and are not just about people feeling joy, I think that would be it—building a more healthy and robust and connected community.”

The Battle of the Bands at the Elk’s Lodge is a strong start, but it’s technically not Wonderhorse’s opening show. The fest actually began the night prior with a satellite show six hours north in Dawson City. The Battle of the Bands was just one component of a larger holistic project to strengthen the arts network in the Yukon and in the Pacific Northwest; in addition to Black Belt Eagle Scout, Wonderhorse has also booked a modest but relatively significant contingent of Vancouver artists.

The Heart of Riverdale photo by: Cooper Muir

“Whitehorse is three quarters of the population of the territory as a whole, so in terms of how funding and decisions are administered, it’s very top-down and Whitehorse-centric [in the Yukon],” McCann-Armitage explains. He says the collective’s decision to spread programming out to the Yukon’s other gold rush boomtowns reaches back pre-pandemic when the festival was only an idea, crediting Wonderhorse founder and former program coordinator Jona Barr with the blueprint. “It was important to make sure Wonderhorse wasn’t just fixated on that sort of centricity and the economic and cultural interests of Whitehorse.”

With abundant references to the gold rush calling out to tourists from Whitehorse’s business signs and restaurant menus, there’s seldom escaping the Yukon’s association with the prospecting migration, but the grip of music industry gamification is loosened up here. Wonderhorse pays little mind to hipster appeal and breakout buzz, looking beyond pandering to industry vultures to curate around a community theory of value instead.

After the Battle of the Bands crowns Philly Groove this year’s winner, Wonderhorse’s youth emphasis continues through the night’s programming as the Wondercrawl draws audiences out for an art crawl along the Yukon River, giving wharf space to breakdancers, screening experimental films, and hosting an art gallery opening from youth involved in Wonderhorse’s Make Something Residency, before calling audiences back to the Elk’s Lodge for a set of pop trap from local North Gold Entertainment signee Princess Melia and a headlining performance from 2019 Polaris Music Prize winner Haviah Mighty.

Haviah Mighty photo by: Cooper Muir

With no dedicated music venues in town, what Whitehorse lacks in infrastructure it makes up for in savvy, bridging that gap by meeting audiences where they are. By the time I sit down at Arts Underground to watch Erica Dee Mah apply the guzheng to a contemporary Western folk music context and address the material struggles her ancestors faced as Chinese immigrants who relocated to the Yukon during the gold rush, I’ve already watched Franklin pour sludge all over the Go-Go’s classic “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Antarticus summon desert rock from the frigid desolation of the tundra in a music store parking lot. Before that, I saw Vancouver rap-rock chaos agent Jodie Jodie Roger and North Gold reps Mobb Diggity and Pumpskii make it rain free festival passes on kids at a skatepark generator party.

Far from industry scrutiny and trend economies of larger cities, Whitehorse becomes a canvas for this grassroots festival, and audiences eat it up wherever they can get it. So when Dawson City emo SoundCloud rapper KEEN performs a significant portion of his Saturday night United Church basement set cross-legged on the carpeted floor while local Jeremy Parkin tends a laptop dressed as his festival-minted Percy Owens persona (think Chaplin’s Tramp meets Depression era reporter), and a small crowd watches from the other side of the room, entertaining knock-knock jokes between songs, the cozy intimacy and relaxed atmosphere rivals that of watching an artist play from their living room. 

Mobb Diggity and Pumpskii photo by: Ashley Swinton

But of course, Whitehorse is not living under a rock, and when the festival brings a drag revue to the Yukon Theatre, it packs the seats to capacity. A couple hundred eager audience members cheer along as ANDYBOY, Lau D’arta, Beau Ryder, and Daddy Supreme work the room. By the time I gain access to the theatre, the show is almost at its close, but I arrive to a scene that is distinctly working class. In a finale, the night’s lineup trots across the stage in coveralls to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” twirling and benching cardboard totems of oversized screwdrivers and combination wrenches just blocks away from the offices of several unions and labour authorities.

After playing multiple mini-sets throughout the previous night’s Wondercrawl, when Vancouver’s Jeff Cancade takes the stage with his DEVOURS project, the crowd at the front of the cinema fills the rows that have been removed for dance space as Cancade launches into his brand of xenogothic synth-pop, encouraging the room to dig into its inner aliens. Warping nostalgic samples into obscurity (“Curmudgeon”) and serving up other songs about being a majority within a minority (“Jacuzzi My Stonewall”), at one point he excitedly asks the room, “Are any queers in the audience?” When a substantial section replies in the affirmative, he clocks how remarkable it is, explaining how he checked Grindr when he got into town only to turn up disappointing results.

The set might garner the festival’s most enthusiastic crowd participation, but after his first encore begets calls for more, Bingo Switch guitarist Brody Halfe jumps onstage to tell Cancade something, and when he turns back to the audience, there’s a mile-wide grin across his face. 

“Wow. Thank you so much Whitehorse! I’ve just been told that the northern lights are out, so I’m gonna go look at those and you should, too, but please buy my merch!”

DEVOURS photo by: Ashley Swinton

Embarking on a discovery ride further into the gold rush’s past (we take the Klondike Highway south instead of north), after a day in Dawson City and two in Whitehorse, for the festival’s finale, it packs up again, touching down in Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Piling into a van full of performers from St. John’s, Toronto, and Vancouver, the atmosphere is buzzing as we feast our eyes on the drive’s mountainous stretches and share our delight in catching the northern lights when we stop partway to take in the natural wonder of Emerald Lake. The official line on the green glow it gets its name from is the light of the sun catching white deposits of clay and calcium carbonate from the lake’s shallow bottom, but our driver, Something Shows board member Liz McCarville, says one friend claims it’s where the northern lights go to sleep.

I wonder out loud if residents are still impressed by the local phenomenon, but I’m quickly informed some are even more bought in, referencing apps that track conditions and venturing out into remote parts of the territory to escape what meagre light pollution there is downtown when conditions are prime. Plus, last night’s display was especially novel, McCarville says, for how early the lights arrived in the season and the spectra on display.

“The purples even came out.”

On the same drive, we pass Carcross Desert, what some locals deem “the smallest desert in the world,” though it is technically a collection of sand dunes formed by the last glacial period. Truth seems to stretch with time and distance, realisms becoming more penetrable.

Ellorie McKnight photo by: Cooper Muir

Pulling into Carcross Commons, Bria Rose is perched on the upper observation deck of the S.S. Tutshi memorial, the preserved remains of a steamboat that carried tourists and freight between communities and railyards following the gold rush. Her songs touch on themes of power, release, and connection, and at one point she sings a line about praying the northern lights would take her away, and many of us have already swallowed that pill. Her performance is the first of three acoustic sets from performers with deep ties to the landscape, followed by St. John’s singer and music therapist Valmy, whose songs are grounding exercises in themselves.  

The S.S. Tutshi performances cap off with a set from Whitehorse folk singer Ellorie McKnight. Her songs are inspired by the wonders of vast landscapes. Her performance at the centre of the hourglass bottleneck between the Bennett and Nares lakes feels all the more appropriate with a 360-degree view crossed by bridges and dotted with mountain peaks. As she digs into “White Pass,” she reflects on how this will likely be the closest she’ll ever get to the song’s titular railroad, and it suddenly hits home how significant a commodity proximity must be in the Yukon.

At Yáan át L’óon Gooch skatepark, kids and teens show off their best on the ramps while Toronto DJ Yunjin spins a breezy house set. When the competition wraps, Bingo Switch soundtracks a freeskate with a sun-dappled set of Jonathan Richman-indebted jazz rock. Festival goers have some time to sit by the Carcross beach before heading over to the Learning Centre, where the festival closes out with a family-oriented country dance led by the Western swing sounds of the Swinging Pines .(The Lucky Ones were also scheduled to play, but Ryan West, the band’s mandolinist injured his arm at the skate competition). Parents steal one last dance with each other before summer ends, teaching kids to two-step and guilting tweens into participation.

Bingo Switch photo by: Cooper Muir

“It’s certainly not as hip or cool as the other stuff, but that’s also because it’s kind of for the community itself,” McCann-Armitage concedes. “You kind of have to program with and for them. Because even if Bingo Switch is an Indigenous band, if nobody living around there from the community has heard of them or are even interested in that music, country music is a big part of the Indigenous population up here. So it’s just essentially being realistic and trying to think of it long term in terms of building an audience there.”

Looking forward, McCann-Armitage says the festival is looking to program workshops and other forms of community engagement to supplement the music programming of Wonderhorse’s satellite events, but this year’s Carcoss happenings were nearly cancelled altogether.

On August 13, the Tagish First Nation suffered the loss of Elder Kitty Grant-Smarch, and the community’s bereavement protocol traditionally calls for a moratorium on dancing for 30 days.

In a statement ahead of the event, the festival acknowledged the passing and explained it sought the advice of Carcross/Tagish First Nation (Wonderhorse presenting partners), whose leadership council encouraged them to proceed with the local programming as it was “something they thought Kitty would have enjoyed.” Still, McCann-Armitage explains, the Tagish Nation Dancers who were originally booked to perform during the events declined, and the turnout was smaller than last year’s family dance.

It’s the first time it occurs to me that locals might be conflicted about Wonderhorse’s galloping ambitions, but it’s apparent the territory’s pace and isolation gives the festival the space it needs to strengthen relations and heal. On land that spends half the year shrouded in near-24-hour darkness, connections are all that you have.