Threats Internal and External

The Yukon Campaign

Soldier, The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, winter dress, circa 1899

Caption: Soldier, The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, winter dress, circa 1899

The discovery, in the late 19th century, of gold-bearing ore in the Yukon forced the Canadian government to take steps to maintain peace in this part of its territory, where they knew the situation could easily deteriorate. The wild scramble for gold in Oregon around 1840 had not been forgotten. Already present in the Yukon, the North-West Mounted Police might quickly have been swamped, especially if the greed of the American expansionists prompted them to raise questions of territorial jurisdiction. In the minds of Canada's political leaders, territorial protection had to be based on military strength. A unit of volunteers recruited from the permanent force was therefore assembled in Vancouver.

On 14 May 1898 this contingent of more than 200, nearly one quarter of the total permanent force, left Vancouver for the Yukon. The group was joined by six women - a journalist, four nurses from the Victorian Order of Nurses and the wife of a Mounted Police officer on duty in the Yukon. They travelled by boat and on foot along badly marked tracks and paths over ground which, even in summer, was frozen to 50 centimetres beneath the surface. Escorted by clouds of mosquitoes, the unit reached Fort Selkirk on 11 September. A few weeks later one of its contingents was sent to Dawson.

The following spring, with the gold rush over and the Yukon population dwindling, half of the men took the road back to Vancouver. In 1900 all but one volunteer, kept there until 1901 to give evidence in a trial, had returned home. They were replaced the next year by a Non-Permanent Militia unit raised in Dawson City.

Thanks to this energetic action and despite a few minor hitches, the Yukon gold rush was very orderly. In particular, it helped to reinforce the principle of Canadian sovereignty over a region virtually unexplored before the discovery of gold. For example, leaving from Vancouver, the expedition used an access route which, though difficult and much slower than the route through Alaska, had the advantage of being almost entirely on Canadian soil. For the return journey they would simplify things by using U.S. territory: 10 days from Fort Selkirk to Vancouver instead of the four months on the way out.

On this occasion, for the first time - and the situation would not be repeated for half a century - Canadian troops ventured and wintered north of the 60th Parallel, where a third of Canada s continental area happens to lie. 33

Among the members of the expedition were Captain Harry Burstall, who would become a major-general and army chief of staff, and Superintendent S.B. Steele of the Mounted Police, who had been on the North-West campaign and whose career would later take him to South Africa.