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Yellowknife: A Cultural Hub

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FIU chapter.

Just outside of the Arctic Circle lies the small town of Yellowknife in the Northwestern Territories of Canada. The town is situated “on the Canadian Shield, on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, and about 400 km south of the Arctic Circle.” The original indigenous population was called Yellowknives Dene or T’atsaot’ine, and the name “Yellowknife” is said to have come from the color of the tools they used, which were made of copper collected from the river. While most speak either English or French, many speak indigenous languages such as Aboriginal, Inuit, Algonquian, and Cree variations.

Canada’s government puts in a lot of work to recognize and respect its First Nations peoples. Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that “no relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.”

Despite only having approximately 20,000 citizens, it’s the most populous city in the Northwestern Territories. In 2012, its population was only reported to be 1,439! The town now has many restaurants, bars, and grocery stores to sustain its growing population.

Via Expedia

I’d heard much about this place from my cousin, who’d spent his summers as a chef north of the area. He’d spun stories around the dinner table about encounters with polar bears, ice fishing, and the beautiful northern lights. I was interested but also scared of this place, as I’d lived in a tropical climate for most of my life and had never experienced a sub-zero winter.

I flew from Toronto to Edmonton, where I prepared to endure an overnight layover (not many are scrambling to visit Yellowknife in December; go figure!) and wrapped myself in my insulated jacket like a makeshift sleeping bag. I woke up at 5 AM and lined up for my flight only to find that the plane had a hole in the windshield and it would be another 4 hours of waiting before boarding a new plane.

Upon arrival at the Yellowknife airport, I quickly discovered only two gates and no line for the TSA. When the doors opened, I was greeted with -40-degree temperatures, a natural polar desert. I took a taxi to the hotel, where every employee I met had a name-tag stating that they were from a foreign country; I wondered what brought people to a place like this to settle down in the so-called “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

Apparently, due to the labor shortage in the Northwestern Territories, there is a program that allows for expedited immigration through work in remote locations. It’s called the Northwest Territories Nominee Program (NTNP), and people worldwide have built lives in this city because of it. Many looking to move to North America will take this path rather than endure the lengthy process of applying for a work visa. With this program, the area has flourished; their tourism industry is growing, and Yellowknife has many thriving businesses and even a university.

Their winters average −15°F, and despite experiencing more sun compared to other Canadian cities, temperatures only go up to around 60°F in the summer. In winter, the lakes become so frozen that cars can travel across them without a second thought. While there, I experienced blizzards, power outages, and the kind of extremely sharp, dry cold where the snow cuts into your skin when you touch it.

My time in Yellowknife

As a tourist, I was able to go aurora hunting and saw the beautiful greens and purples dance in the sky. Despite several thermal layers, an insulated coat, gloves, 3 pairs of socks, 2 hoods, snow boots, a scarf, and a pair of hand warmers, I still found myself shivering. I sat at the back of the bus closest to the heating element, though that did little to kill the icy air. While on the tour, the guide gave us hot chocolate, almost making me forget that I couldn’t feel my toes.

We didn’t have a car and walked almost everywhere during the day. It was so cold that my lashes began to freeze together, and my skin chapped harshly. At times, my phone would shut down due to the extreme temperature, leaving me almost entirely unable to use it outdoors.

I experienced fish and chips from a family-owned shop with fish caught from the Great Slave Lake before it froze over. I wandered the Yellowknife Historical Center and learned about how they had used seal skins, crafted boats, and sewed fur coats. There were many beautiful things about the city, but I couldn’t help but be amazed that the citizens could withstand the harsh climate.

I’m so thankful that I was able to visit such an incredible place and meet the people brave enough to trek through this snowy city. I learned so much about the indigenous peoples and how the citizens of Yellowknife live, and I hope to go back one day.

Lilly Cheung is a writer for the HerCampus chapter at Florida International University with a passion for fashion, beauty and film. As an English Literature major, she has spent countless nights writing and rewriting, dedicating much time to honing her craft. Set to graduate this year, she plans to continue writing professionally through copywriting. When she's not busy typing away on her computer, you can find her logging the last independent film on Letterboxd of thrifting for vintage. The type of girl that won the middle school 'Fashionista award' in 8th grade and never let it go (true story). She's a serial hobbyist, sewing and crafting costuming pieces or fashion staples in her small apartment. The smell of hot glue and a floor covered in stray thread is commonplace. In addition, staying active and traveling are another big part of her life.