Pat Ellis first arrived in Whitehorse in the early 1950s. She was a 19 year-old art student from Winnipeg and Whitehorse was a much different city then.
Ramshackle cabins and tiny derelict homes made up the downtown waterfront replacing today’s S.S. Klondike and Rotary Peace Park.
The downtown riverside areas went by names like Whiskey Flats and Moccasin Flats and a third of the city’s population called it home.
For Ellis, like many Canadians, it was the booming northern economy that drew her north to the territory.
After Whitehorse became the territory’s capital in 1953 more and more people arrived in the city to work for the higher wages.
Ellis likens the time to a mini Klondike stampede.
“After the war, across the country it was hard for young people to get ahead so people came north,” said Ellis. “The economy was good, it was booming and so was the private sector.”
With minimal housing available to meet the sudden need people began to set up homes on the waterfront, squatting on land owned by the White Pass railroad, which, at the time was the largest company in town.
At its peak 310 homes and more than 900 people would make up the waterfront.
Upon arrival Ellis was immediately drawn to the community and for five months she, too, would call it home.
“People were very nice, so trusting and somewhat naïve,” remembers Ellis. “I felt more secure then and there was so much laughter.”
The area, its colourful characters and the many personal stories make up the subject for her new book, called Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse.
It chronicles the history of the squatter community from the 1950s through to the 1980s with a number of former residents contributing their own personal stories, photographs and memories of the area.
For Ellis it was an important story to tell about a unique part of the country.
“I don’t think there is another place in Canada that has had such a strange bit of history,” she says. “It’s pretty funny when you get a third of the town squatting and more or less defying this huge company.”
Ellis remembers the real sense of community there was and how busy everyone always seemed to be, whether it was helping to build one another’s houses or selling slippers and other handicrafts from home.
“The people that were in these squatter houses were well educated,” Ellis says. “There were all sorts of people living in the area. Immigrants from Europe and First Nations and they were always doing something. There was no time off and people didn’t have all these toys like today.”
Eventually city administration and the White Pass decided the squatters had to be removed. In the late 1950’s the 30-year process of dispersing the eclectic community began.
White Pass was forced to relinquish lots they owned and once that was done people were able to buy property in other parts of downtown.
In some circumstances federal assistance was provided to move squatter homes to Porter Creek.
The White Pass then donated its land so that the S.S. Klondike could be permanently displayed.
And while most of the squatter community was gone by the 1980s one property did remain right up until 2003, at what is known today as Shipyards Park.
Today, some of the original squatter homes still stand in parts of the city but the riverside community as it was and its many characters are now gone.
Ellis hopes her latest book will help preserve this part of Whitehorse’s historic character.
“The old Whitehorse is gone,” said Ellis. “It was such a neat time and an important time to remember.”
The MacBride Museum of Yukon History held a book launch on Nov. 26 for Ellis’ 56-page book, and they almost sold out that evening. They are selling Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse ($10) until copies run out.