Wednesday, January 29, 2014

KLONDIKE, The Real Story

Yes, I get it. When you're telling a story, you utilize literary license to showcase the bigger truth of the story. You fudge a little on dates, maybe ignore conflicting or immaterial information, certainly beef up events that weren't necessarily meaty. However, in the recent airing of Klondike, I found the Discovery Channel to be so far off in their rendition of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush that all semblance of reality has been smothered and buried beneath a swift and suffocating avalanche perpetrated by Hollywood. I'm sorry because an opportunity was lost to tell the real story.

The purpose of this essay is not to reveal the historical inaccuracies (chalk these up to literary license) but to address a plot development that flew in the face of truth. While portending to tell the story of the world's most iconoclastic gold rush in history, Klondike simply echoed yet another episode of Gunsmoke and the "wild wild American West". It's my contention that we can fictionalize anything we want--but when we do, "based on actual events" no longer is an option. Or it shouldn't be. Because when we distort reality so drastically, truth is not served. Viewers of Klondike are now under the impression they know all about Canada's Gold Rush. Do they
View of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers
Lower right: First Nation's fishing camp 
vacated for Moosehide
Upper right: Dawson City
Thronkdike Whech'in
Let's begin with the invisiblization of Dawson City's First Nations people--the Throndike Whech'in. 

They were replaced by Alaska's Tlingit--a coastal Native American band who, as a group, never went to Dawson City. In reality, the enterprising Tlingit were far too busy making money off the incoming gold miners, charging them an arm and a leg to haul gear and grub over Chilkoot and White Passes. And while there are written and oral histories portraying the Tlingit as warriors, nothing historical suggests that the Throndike Whech'in ever were. They in fact retreated from the gold rush to their little village of Moosehide, downriver from Dawson City. Yet the mini-series shows the Throndike Whech'in (simulataneously mistaken for Tlingit) going after the Mounties, slicing throats and shooting rifles. Really? No. The Throndike Whech'in never went after the Mounties; the Mounties never went after them. Why should they? The Mounties historically had a good relationship with the Natives. To invisibilize an entire group by mixing them up with someone else--and assigning a violence not theirs--is to deny the very existence of an ancient and noble people and to spit in the face of truth

Fort Constantine, Mountie Detachment
Forty Mile, Yukon, Winter 1895
Shall we tackle the Mounties next? Portrayed as violent thugs who came after the fact, hauling a cage? what? they were apparently at the mercy of Canada's Minister of the Interior, a supposedly arrogant, corrupt, and even more violent thug who loved to brow beat the Mounties. 

To start, the Mounties did not arrive after the fact. For two decades, prospectors had been pulling bits of gold from the Yukon creeks; it was only a matter of time before the really big stuff was found. History being a good indicator of the future, Canada in 1895 sent up 20 Mounties to Forty Mile (Yukon government seat) as preemptive strike against any lawless Americans that might swarm in. When the gold was found, Canada immediately sent up more men. And in February 1898, Superintendent Sam Steele arrived to take over all Yukon Mountie operations.

There was no cage.

As to the violence assigned the Mounties? In way of background, they were formulated in 1873 under the model of the Irish Constabulary; meaning they were empowered to make up  laws as they went along, to carry them out, and to execute punishment. By the time of the Gold Rush came along their power was more limited, but they still had authority to run a tight ship. All business in Dawson City was shut down on Sundays, as was prostitution. Drunkenness was forbidden, the guilty assigned to the wood pile. Mores serious issues involved the famous one-way order out of town. More importantly, the Mounties served less as law enforcement and more as servant to the needs of the citizenry. Superintendent Sam Steele writes:
Sam Steele, Dawson City, 1898
The more than 30,000 persons, everyone of whom had received assistance or advice, had passed down the Yukon. Over 150,000 dollars in duty and fees had been collected, more than thirty million pounds of solid food…had been inspected and checked over by us. We had seen that sick were cared for, had buried the dead, administered their estates to the satisfaction of their kin, had brought on our own supplies and means of transport, had built our own quarters and administered the laws of Canada without one well-found complaint against us.
The Mounties did a good work and were well respected. They certainly did not hold a gun to an old man's head, let alone a child's, behaving like the terrorist thugs. To portray Canada's early Force as nothing more than an American army of blackguards so common in American history spins a story of nonviolence into its opposite.

William Ogilvy
Klondike would have us believe that William Ogilvy, Canada's Minister of the Interior, was sent to boss the Mounties around. 

Ogilvy was sent to the Yukon a full decade before the gold rush, as a surveyor, his job being to define the American/Canadian boundary. When the initial rush took off, he was asked by the locals to survey Dawson City, and, as the rush intensified, was asked by the miners to resurvey their claims to avoid errors, claim jumping, and any kind of violence. He did this willingly and without bribery, and you'll not find a single miner denigrating Ogilvy. He was, and still is, regarded (along with Sam Steele) as a real hero--a man of integrity and utmost honesty. Neither he (nor Steele) ever made a dime off the millions of dollars of gold floating around. Ogilvy certainly didn't dictate orders to the Mounties, nor did he luxuriate in hot baths while threatening Sam Steele. And he most certainly did not order the hanging of an innocent "Tlingit" man and his little boy.

When a plot line relies on murder and mayhem to tell the tale, a line is crossed from telling Canadian history to obliterating it. There were only three homicides in Dawson City, population anywhere from 30,000 - 40,000, and which Sam Steele reported as being "unpreventable." There was no Count to viciously and brutally reign havoc. And in the gold fields, not a single murder. True. A rather unique and significant detail somehow missed--a detail that defines the Klondike Gold Rush

All story is always about truth. It's why we have literary license, so we can bring focus to truth without cluttering it up with messy, minor details. But in this case, the creators of Klondike went far beyond literary license when they buried the real story under a rubble of misrepresentation. A whole people were invisibilized and maligned; Canadian law enforcement was assigned historical American policy; heroes were  stripped of honor, presented as hooligans; nonviolence was ambushed by violence. Such misrepresentation bothers me--because the purpose of all story is to tell the truth. Make something up, you're still bound to universal truth. When you advertise "based upon actual events," you are obligated to embrace the fundamental truth. Klondike, however, is a case of spinning truth into everything it wasn't, spinning gold, if you will, into mere straw. 

Viewers of Klondike think they now understand Canada's gold rush history of the Far North. They do not. The Klondike is not about murder and mayhem and selfish greed, but of heroism amidst hardship, of ordinary men and women who, for the most part, rose above their greed and selfishness to live in unprecedented cooperation--people who collectively pulled off the most peaceful gold rush in world history.

That's the Klondike story. 

About Me: When expressing my contention with this mini-series to an American, I have received feedback that it's offensive. As if I'm somehow denigrating Americans. Let me clarify.
I am Canadian by birth, American by choice, and for thirty years I've researched the intersection of  Canadian/American history. I'm fascinated by the two countries' similarities, differences, and ironies. For instance, American's Great Northern was engineered by a Canadian while Canada's Canadian Pacific was engineered by an American. I've also lived in both countries, was schooled in both countries, and have called British Columbia, Quebec, Michigan, Iowa, Arizona, Washington, and California, not in that order, home. Bee-bopping back and forth across the border a lifestyle, I've come to believe that Americans and Canadians have a singular defining difference that colors just about everything.
Canadians have always viewed community as more important than individual rights; whereas Americans have always regarded individual rights as primary. It's why Americans fight against gun control while Canadians scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about. It's why Americans fight universal health care while Canadians see health care as their fundamental, inalienable right. Neither position is right or wrong; they just happen to be different. 
Yet it's this difference that inevitably comes into play whenever an American tries to write Canadian history. It's inconceivable to most Americans that the development of Canada West was relatively nonviolent. Canadian history, written by someone south of the border, inevitably becomes filtered through the American lens of  frontier violence. The fact that law enforcement and First Nation issues were far less heavy handed in Canada is not something that occurs to an American for the very simple reason that it was not part of the U.S.'s rugged heritage of individualism. 
My disagreement of Discovery Channel's Klondike is not aimed at Americans but at the presumption of brutality that's so foreign to Canada. I don't care what country you're standing in, truth is important. Without it, we distort our collective heritage.