Proposing World Heritage Status for the Klondike

The headline on the front page of the July 24, 1997 edition of the Klondike Sun proclaimed, “Berton Proposes Dawson for World Heritage Site Status.”

The Berton was Pierre Berton, of course, Dawson City’s most famous living son at the time and author of some 60 books.

It wasn’t the first time anyone suggested the Klondike should be recognized under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, but it was the loudest statement at a significant time.

The North in general, and Dawson in particular, had a warm place in Berton’s heart.

Half of his books touched on the North, most notably the Governor General’s Award winning Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896–1899.

Berton had contacted me about a week before I wrote that article for the Klondike Sun. Berton wanted to set up telephone interviews with himself and Pierre Dalibard. Dalibard had been with Parks Canada when the Klondike National Historic Site was created back in the 1960s – he also later went on to sit on the UNESCO board that governs World Heritage Site selection.

Berton had already approached the Dawson City town council, and Mayor Glen Everitt had taken his letter to councilors, who were still excited about the Gold Rush Centennials, which were then approaching their 1998 climax.

“Dawson qualifies under at least two of the six cultural criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List, which is divided into physical and cultural categories,” wrote Berton.

The two criteria he was referring to are Parts ii and iv on the UNESCO’s website, which are for a cultural site, in which the candidate city exhibits:

“An important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design…” and “be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history…”

During my interview with Dalibard on July 10, 1997, he suggested that Berton was being too modest and that another Part vi also would apply, covering the contributions of Robert Service, Jack London and Berton himself.

He said Dawson would also meet the criterion that states, “be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance…”

The World Heritage Site program was established by the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization in 1972.

Should Dawson City or the Klondike ever be approved, it would join 981 properties on the World Heritage List. The UNESCO website lists 759 cultural, 193 natural and 29 mixed properties.

In Canada there are currently 15 sites, established between 1978 and 2013. They include places like L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park, which is the site of the first Viking settlement in Newfoundland; Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta; the historic area of Quebec City; and the old town section of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia.

The most recent designation is the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station in Labrador.

Public debate on the merits of this proposal have waxed and waned over the 16 years since Berton’s proclamation, and the discussion is on again; the Trondek Hwechin Economic Development Plan recommended giving it another look.

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