As the lights dimmed in the Yukon Arts Centre last June, musician Diyet van Lieshout, standing behind the curtains, took a deep breath. More accustomed to performing on stage, van Lieshout was moments away from the start of Dreaming Roots, her debut in the directing world. The crowd quieted and, soon, the music would begin and the first of more than 50 local Indigenous artists would grab the audience’s attention, telling stories about their culture and history, and expressing their hopes for the future. The Hän Singers, an intergenerational traditional song and drumming group, focused on the importance of salmon to Yukon First Nations; hip hop artists Vision Quest told the history of residential schools.
The 70-minute show, which van Lieshout co-created with Toronto-based choreographer and producer Alejandro Ronceria, combined dance, drumming, theatre, and storytelling—ultimately showcasing a “beautiful co-creation from an Indigenous heart, minds and lens,” says van Lieshout.
Dreaming Roots was one of many events held during Adäka Cultural Festival’s 10th anniversary, In 2022, the festival ran alongside the Arctic Arts Summit, which brought together hundreds of artists from the Circumpolar North.
The summit was launched in Norway in 2017, and Sophie Tremblay Morissette, director of cultural services with the Yukon Government, was determined to see it reach Northern Canada. “It’s definitely important to bring people together to build relationships and create long-lasting connections,” says Morissette. “That’s one of the goals of the Arctic Art Summit, to strengthen existing connections and relationships, but also to create new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.”
During those festival and summit days in June 2022, art was everywhere in downtown Whitehorse. Local musicians belted out tunes to crowds at a park on Wood Street while artists sold drawings on sidewalks. The movie theatre’s doors remained open, playing short Northern films on a loop. Tourists and residents strode past vibrant murals on store walls before popping into one of more than a dozen art spaces in the city’s downtown core. The events showed guests that the Yukon is alive with art.
“I don’t know what it is,” muses Lana Welchman, executive director of Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture in Dawson City. “I think artists just come up here and then the community breeds more creativity and more artistic endeavours.”
The Yukon’s success as a Northern arts hub owes partially to the geographic and demographic advantages it has when compared to its neighbours in Northern Canada. Nearly three-quarters of the Yukon’s 43,000 residents live in Whitehorse, whereas less than half of the NWT’s population lives in Yellowknife and about one-fifth of Nunavummiut live in Iqaluit. That means more of the territory’s residents benefit from investments in arts infrastructure in the capital city. And unlike the other territories, all but one Yukon community is accessible by road, making it easier (and cheaper) for artists to tour, travel, and collaborate—and to make use of the facilities and professional services available in Whitehorse.
The relative accessibility of Yukon communities has inspired one of Yukon Art Centre’s biggest priorities, which is to tour more shows and exhibits across the territory. Last summer, the centre partnered with the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre and Teslin Tlingit Council to tour Honouring Our Future: Yukon First Nations Regalia.
This exhibit displayed First Nations graduation outfits created by high school students across the Yukon over the last 20 years. Combining modern and traditional designs, the outfits ranged from moosehide vests to dresses with fringe sleeves or floral-patterned material cinching in the waist and appearing under the pleats of an A-line skirt. Other dresses with spaghetti-straps had First Nations art screen-printed onto the front.
Mary Bradshaw, the centre’s director of visual arts, says the exhibit caught the eyes of tourists travelling through the Yukon. Word of the show even reached Alaska. “People were talking about it in Fairbanks, saying, ‘you have to stop and see this show!’”
More importantly, the exhibit gave Yukoners a chance to appreciate—and be inspired by—the beautiful works being made in the Yukon. “Often the people creating traditional regalia don’t consider themselves artists, particularly when it comes to beadwork. I think with this work being exhibited, it’s saying, ‘hey look, this is art!’” says Bradshaw.
Katie Johnson, (Lasänmą), a member of Kluane First Nation, has spent the last 15 years promoting the work of Yukon Indigenous artists. When the Canada Winter Games came to Whitehorse in 2007, she saw a perfect opportunity to introduce newcomers to the Yukon’s arts scene.
With her team, Johnson, who had begun working for the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association, organised Gathering of Northern Nations, a cultural festival highlighting the work of more than 50 performers, considered champions of their communities. The artists gathered in a large tent in Whitehorse, where visitors could take in concerts, plays, dances, and spoken word performances, while crafters, designers, and trappers displayed their wares on surrounding tables.
Even though it was -30C that week, Johnson recalls the long line-ups of people outside the tent waiting to get a glimpse inside. That level of interest “really planted the seed to continue this work of supporting and creating events and platforms for communities to come together,” she says.
Through Gathering of Northern Nations, Johnson met Charlene Alexander. The two went on to create a showcase of Yukon artists for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “After that we were like, we need a home for our artists,” Johnson says. “We need a place for artists to go every year to share with communities and to grow.”
Since 2011, Johnson and Alexander have been exhibiting local First Nations art to thousands of tourists, through the Adäka Cultural Festival. In 2022, the festival—running alongside the Yukon Arts Summit—brought in more than 200 Northern artists and 10,000 local and outside Yukon visitors. There were daily performances throughout the week, alongside markets, a fashion show, and workshops on beading, tufting, and other traditional arts. Those workshops are integral, says Johnson, because they help people understand the skill and time that goes into producing each craft, creating greater value for the work.
“Seeing where traditional arts were 10 years ago to where it is now, it's a huge market—not just locally, but nationally and internationally. And so we really wanted to nurture that,” says Johnson, adding they wanted to create a platform to support these artists and to allow people to meet them. And learn about their craft.
Kaylyn Baker first participated in the Adäka Cultural Festival in 2017. After seeing the festival’s fashion show that year, Baker knew she wanted to showcase her beadwork and designs on that runway. Last year, she made it happen. Models donning her floral skirts and fringed tops strut across the stage. Other outfits showed off Baker’s traditional floral beaded designs, inspired by fish, sundogs and berry-picking excursions with her family. Shortly after the show, Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week accepted her application to showcase her work on a national stage.
Today, Johnson speaks of Baker’s successes with pride, grateful that Adäka helped raise the beader’s profile. “Our vision when Charlene and I started this work was really about unifying and strengthening,” Johnson says. “And then building that bridge for visitors and the world to experience and to learn about our communities and artists. And so that has always been the vision, and our organisation really is strong in the development of arts and culture and tourism sectors here in the Yukon.”
The arts are a huge draw for Yukon tourism. According to a 2017-18 survey, 30,000 visitors attended an arts or music festival in the Yukon that year, while another 103,500 guests visited a cultural centre. The tourism potential has proven to be a massive incentive for the territorial government to boost investments in the arts. Much of this comes in the form of grants available to Yukoners, from the Yukon Arts Fund, which supports group projects and invests $500,000 to the arts each year, to the micro-grant program that offers up to $5,000 per artist and promises a response ten days after applying.
“When you look at funding for the arts per capita in the country, for all jurisdictions, Yukon is always [near] the top,” Morissette says. “We have a very vibrant community and consistent funding for the arts.”
The most vibrant community may well be Dawson City, where the arts are the third pillar of the local economy (with mining and tourism) for the 2,000 or so year-round residents.
“The cultural scene of Dawson rivals a lot of the bigger cities,” says Welchman. “My background is music and I’ve seen better live music in Dawson than I’ve seen in Saskatchewan [where I’m from]. The city is able to attract world-class musicians and artists. And it reflects the interests and diversity of the people who live here.”
The Dawson City Arts Society and the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture together host artist residencies and festivals, and collaborate with musicians and galleries to hold regular events. Since the KIAC Artist in Residence program began (in partnership with Parks Canada) in 2001, Dawson City has welcomed more than 300 artists, filmmakers, and musicians from across Canada and the world. Those selected for the program often collaborate with community members or incorporate the Yukon landscape into their work. That way, the community benefits from working with a new artist while the artist-in-residence can go on and showcase the territory through their work. Past artists-in-residence have become award-winning musicians and filmmakers, and some artists have permanent collections in the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery and even New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture was also integral to starting Dawson City’s first art school. Since 2007, burgeoning artists have studied at the Yukon School of Visual Arts, with dozens of these students continuing at institutes like the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, OCAD University, and Mount Allison University.
One-quarter of the school’s students are from the Yukon; the rest come from across Canada or around the world. The classroom sizes are small—the school accepts a maximum of 20 students a year—but the influence it has on the students and community is huge. An upstairs hallway is dedicated to the posters of every graduate from the school, including Tamika Knutson, who has exhibited her jewelry across Canada, and comic book author Cole Pauls.
“Yukon is a place where folks can safely express themselves. They can do what they want in a way that is supported by other Yukoners,” Welchman says.
Just take Dreaming Roots—some of the most beautiful scenes come through the collaboration of many artists. “The creation of the show is what happens when creatives from many disciplines come together with a goal of creating from an authentic place, while being supported by production teams, elders, cultural leaders and healers, and other artists,” says van Lieshout.
That willingness to help others—on the stage, behind the scenes, with funding or with making a connection—is what makes the Yukon thrive as an arts hub.