David Neufeld: Yukon & Western Arctic Historian, Parks Canada

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Since 1986 I’ve worked as a historian for the national parks and historic sites of Yukon and the western Arctic. My job with Parks Canada has two primary goals: to provide accurate and complete historical research to managers and staff in support of their preservation and presentation of site values, and, to work with non-Parks groups, mainly First Nations governments and university students and faculty, to assess, analyze and ensure national protected heritage areas continue to be relevant to the social and cultural needs of contemporary Canada.

Cultural research work with Parks Canada is strongly place-based. Every project involves close and direct contact with dramatic and demanding landscapes and relies on the hospitality and patience of the people who live there. I’ve stood amongst tens of thousands of migrating caribou, listening to the clicking of their hooves, hiked the mountainous Chilkoot Trail in howling gales, and boated to Gwitchin camps along Nagwichoonjik (the Mackenzie River) with elders, listening to their stories, while chewing on dried fish. This fascinating field work, complemented with archival research and academic reading, contributes to multi-disciplinary projects involving both western disciplines – archaeologists, ecologists, and landscape architects – and Indigenous elders, hunters and fishers.

This research supports Parks staff in their stewardship of park values in a dynamic environment. It also shapes interpretation media, trail panels, visitor centres, television and the web, to help visitors understand their own relationships with these special places. Recent examples of such projects include a history of the Southern Tutchone dispossession from lands incorporated into Kluane National Park/Reserve as background for new exhibits at the park and a project investigating the lasting ecological changes in the Chilkoot Trail, legacies of the gold rush passage a century ago.1

Cultural research about Parks Canada is equally stimulating and rewarding. Collaborative work with Yukon First Nations and academics and students both extends the reach of national protected areas and provides an ongoing re-appraisal of program relevance. The past 25 years witnessed the negotiation and implementation of modern treaties between Yukon First Nations and Canada, a fascinating period to engage in as a historian. Parks Canada provided opportunities for me to work with First Nation governments, assisting them in their initiatives. Currently I lead a modest academic team with three graduate students as part of a Yukon FN International Polar Year project on climate change and resilience. Our team is exploring how Western science and Indigenous knowledge can work together to better serve First Nation interests.2

These experiences highlight the importance of “writing-back” into western ways of thinking. Parks Canada has a fully developed program designed to propagate the national story of Canada. However radical changes in Canadians perception of themselves, the First Nation settlements in the Yukon being only one example, call for changes in how Parks Canada understands what it does. I’ve reviewed the Agency’s history and my own Yukon experiences to appreciate how we can better serve the interests of First Nation communities.3 Similarly, as adjunct faculty at Yukon College, I teach northern history centered on cultural contact to public school teachers and work with academic colleagues to organize events such as the 2009 NiCHE Northern Environmental History workshop.


  1. Kluane National Park Reserve 1923-1974: Modernity and Pluralism is a chapter in Claire Campbell, ed. A Place for the People: Canada’s National Parks, 1911-2011 (Univ. of Calgary Press, in press).
  2. Learning to Drive the Yukon River: Western Cartography and Athabaskan Story Maps(Rachel Carson Centre Perspectives, in press) considers the different cultural conceptions of the environment shaping cartography.
  3. Parks Canada, the Commemoration of Canada and Northern Aboriginal Oral History, Oral History and Public Memories, ed. Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).

Featured image: Watson Lake, Yukon. Photo by Étienne Beauregard-Riverin on Unsplash.

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