If you log on to CBC’s Searchlight Contest, that’s what they call us.
It’s a label applied to all the musicians from the territories featured in the competition. On this seemingly comprehensive list of 1,742 emerging Canadian artists, ‘The North’ features only 18. I have several friends seeking my votes and the ultimate Searchlight prize, most of whom I have met since moving Whitehorse last year. This might seem unremarkable, given my background in the music industry and the small population of the place, but the fact is that the level of talent of these artists IS remarkable.
I’ve wrestled with this post for a long time, because I don’t want to seem as though I am pandering to specific groups or artists and forgetting others, when truthfully I haven’t had the ability to balance my schedule well enough to get to know everyone well. However, I can’t allow my failure to familiarize myself completely with the local music scene to prevent me from writing about the wonder that is the arts-incubator I now call home.
I had a friend once tell me about the arts and music scene in Whitehorse, long before I ever considered relocating. She described it as some sort of creative elysium populated by people of extreme talent, but also doing some of the most directed artist cultivation in the country. My curiosity has always outweighed my skepticism, and the source was someone I deeply respected on these matters, so I had some confidence of the quality and quantity of arts-experiences available in the Yukon.
The truth, however, is that I had no idea.
I’ve worked in live performance for the better part of two decades. I know the right words to use when speaking to funders about how the arts impact ‘quality of life,’ play a critical role in ‘economic development,’ and ‘attracting professionals to communities.’ I have even been known to work the phrase ‘enhance the liveability of a city’ into small talk. I’m not a stranger to the threads that the arts lend to the cultural fabric of a place. I’ve not only been the choir, I’ve been the preacher.
But I had no idea.
I had no idea that this place they refer to as ‘The North’ is a place where the arts form the very soul of the community. They aren’t a pleasant afterthought or a ‘nice atmospheric addition.’ The arts are the heavily thumping heart of the place.
In all my years I have never encountered a place like the Yukon. Everyone is a patron of the arts here. Everyone is encouraged to be an artist. To try, to experiment, to express and to become. The audiences are educated, sophisticated, intelligent and hungry to be pushed, to participate in experiences and to be immersed in excellence.
I’ve been wrestling with the ‘why?’ What makes this place this way?
Certainly, the Yukon Arts Centre has played a big role in this cultivation of artists and audiences. They are excellent at what they do, but there are centres like this all across the country. It can’t be the YAC alone.
After talking to many of my friends who make their living in the arts in this community, and after spending a year in the heritage field in this territory, I have a much more intriguing theory, and while I am writing on my experience in the Yukon, I can surmise that this holds true across ‘The North.’
We are a society of storytellers.
Spend a couple of days in the shops and restaurants of Whitehorse and you will see what I mean.
The North is a community of people who come together in groups of one or two hundred, on cold, dark nights and warm, sunny days to listen to and tell stories. We are some of the best storytellers in the world. From colourful First Nations histories to personal experiences in the wilderness or at the Superstore, being a good teller of stories is what distinguishes people in this part of Canada. Strangely, it is a greater source of pride to share experiences than it is to drive an expensive car or live in a large home in this place.
And isn’t that what great art is? A story. A series of stories. A sharing of experiences. The ability to grow a person by contributing wisdom in a creative way.
That is The North.
It’s the 70-year-old woman telling a story of how, as a girl, she used to mark the passing of the seasons by the date she could first skip on the road, and the when the first hopscotch board was chalked on the sidewalk. It’s the man who asked what his buddy did when he emerged from the house on his way to work to find a bear sitting on his car, and it’s his friends response of a simple shrug and ‘I took the bus.’ Also, it’s the way that people listen to these stories and make them important somehow.
It’s Ryan McNally’s CD Release party last Saturday night, packing the Old Fire Hall with incredible music, dancing, stories, suits and overalls. It was an amazing time. More than that, the music developed and recorded on this album is excellent. It is what we in this part of ‘The North’ are putting our stamp on and sending to you.
It’s Claire Ness and Speed Control. It’s some of the musicians just starting to tell their stories, and those Yukon artists of all disciplines who have told their stories across Canada and around the world.
These are our sounds. This is our music.
And it is your music too.
It seems that conversations are constantly evolving and devolving over what makes up Canadian culture. I’ll put it to you: aren’t we all a community of storytellers? Aren’t our stories our national cultural legacy? Don’t they set us apart. Weren’t we all, at some point, ‘The North?’
So I invite you to head over to CBCmusicsearchlight.ca and enter ‘The North’ into the region section. Give a listen to some of our artists. Not because I told you to, but because it will make your day better.
Ryan McNally just dropped his new album ‘Steppin’ Down South.’ Ryan is a fantastic Yukon musician and what I am listening to right now. Check him out at http://www.ryanmcnally.ca.