From Cheechako to Sourdough

Reflections on northern living and surviving while being black
January 2, 2020

Back in 2014, friends of mine invited me to visit them in the Yukon.

“The Yukon?” I thought. “What the fuck am I going to do there? Black people don’t go north, let alone the Yukon.”

But with a heart full of love for these friends, who assured me that the Yukon was a magical place, I left for my first visit to the North; my first time travelling on my own. I still remember boarding the flight to Whitehorse on Air North, which I later found out was owned by a First Nation in the territory.

I was nervous. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing, going to a place so far north and by myself?” The friends I was visiting weren’t Black. So, as much as I believed them when they said the Yukon was magical, I began to panic. All I knew is that I was heading to a hunting area.... Would I get shot? Would I be asked questions about my Blackness and forced to contend with inappropriate stares? Would I be the only Black person in town? What if my friends lured me into a place where their whiteness and privilege prevented them from seeing the dangers that were present for Black and racialized folks? The experience of travelling to somewhere new is often fraught for Black people. Wherever we go, we need to consider whether or not we will be treated with dignity. Add the fact that I am a woman, queer, and unapologetically outspoken; I was truly nervous. But I needed to leave the city.

While leaving the airport in my friend’s car, I looked in the rearview mirror and gasped at the multitude of mountains looking back. “If you think these mountains are pretty, just wait until we take the road to Skagway (Alaska),” my friend said. As I walked in the streets of Whitehorse, I couldn’t help but notice the number of Indigenous people. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone. Yukon is home to fourteen First Nations, eleven of which are self-governing. This is a fact that is barely discussed in Canadian history, politics, or education. I hold a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and political science. Never did we learn about Indigenous governance. But I was required to learn about the colour of the carpet in the House of Commons and the Senate. Am I surprised? Absolutely not. This country is founded on colonialism, racism, and genocide. I was ashamed that I had assumed that white people had power and control in this land simply because that’s what I was used to seeing.

Needless to say, my visit was spectacular. I ate berries from backyards and public trails; I was taught to forage for Labrador Tea; I saw northern lights for the very first time. I did things I hadn’t done in a really long time, but that I loved: camping, hiking, exploring. On my last day in Whitehorse, I hiked up a mountain with my friends to see the sunset; I sat down on the fresh ground, cracked open a beer, and tears started flowing. At first I thought it was because of the winds and the fact that I was going back home and probably wouldn’t see my friends again in a while. I thought I was sad. But when I took the plane back home to Ottawa the next day, I started to sob uncontrollably. I cried tears of joy, I cried tears of sadness, but most of all I cried because I was able to breathe! That was it! I knew I’d be back.

The following winter I was invited to come up to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to visit a friend. I figured if I was going all the way up there, I might as well stop by Whitehorse in the Yukon. And there I was, so far north, only this time in the beginning of winter. I was so “misplaced,” even my phone would die from the cold as soon as I took it out of my coat. I was cold. But I didn’t care. I was facing mountains. The same ones that had taken my heart a year prior. The sun would rise near 11 a.m. and go back down near 3 p.m. The sun was almost nonexistent, yet the darkness was calming, soothing, and best felt with a burning fire. That year, winter was different; during my Yukon visit we played in the snow all day, went tubing in the Carcross Desert. I wasn’t once cold. I was glowing. I felt like a kid again.

I remembered being a kid in London, Ontario, building houses made out of snow on our front lawn. I’d invite my neighbours for “lunch” in my made-up kitchen. Most of the other kids couldn’t sustain the cold and would make up an excuse to run back home. I didn’t really have that many friends growing up, and as a result I realized that it was nice to not have to share my “snow house” with anybody else. I hadn’t played in the snow for such a long period of time in so long until that Yukon visit. Growing up I often cursed the snow. As an adult living in Canada I’d ask myself why the hell was I still living in this cold-ass place. Yet, after one experience of Yukon winter, I had a different, a very different view: She (winter) was gorgeous! A wonderland to discover, so inviting. With fauna that seemed so mysterious, like out of a fantasy novel. There was caribou, elk, bison, arctic fox and lynx. Due to the lack of humidity, I felt this winter visit was so much warmer than winter in Toronto, Ottawa, or Montreal—all places that made me despise winter. People here were laughing, always wanting to do things outside and be cozy inside. I’d meet up with a friend of mine, who is visibly racialized, and I allowed myself to ask the real questions: Are there Black people here? Other racialized people? Could I move here?  Would I be happy? Could I find community? Sure, I give credit to my friends: they were the ones to invite me up to visit in the first place. But the greater credit goes to my friend Reem: she inspired me to be who I am and to embrace my love for camping and hiking and loving the North’s winter while still being true to myself. She showed me that we poCs can enjoy life not fitting “the norm.” We can still do those outdoor sports and activities and not let ourselves down or betray ourselves. I decided to take a bold step and move north.

Leaving Toronto was easier than I thought. Sure, I was rattled with anxiety, depression, and fear, but my activism had always pushed me in unfamiliar territory. At this time in my life, the price of my activism was catching up to me—I was receiving real threats from people with power and influence, as well as your average asshole trolls. I read descriptions of me online that were so vile in ways I had never seen or imagine possible. I’d be belittled with the most hurtful words, criticisms of my Blackness, my queerness, and my intelligence. People who I had never seen or met before wished ill on my well-being and pain on my friends and family. I saw darkness everywhere I went. I couldn’t breathe. I knew I needed to leave, to go. If I were to survive in this world, I needed a place that allowed me to be me, to love myself, and a place where I could escape when things would get wild again. I say “wild again,” because (a) being Black in Canada, you can’t seclude yourself from racist bullshit. There is no place, not even one as big and diverse as Toronto, that will protect you from haters, racists, misogynists, and white supremacists. Our country is founded on white supremacy, and its roots run so deep. It is everywhere. And I say “wild again” because (b) being unapologetically outspoken means shit will sometimes pop off, no matter how hard I try. And trust me...I’ve tried! Being Haitian, I like to think that I can never be tamed in my activism, in my quest for social justice. It’s in my blood, it’s in my history, and it’s in the generations of my ancestors and in the generations of my futures. I need to be able to speak my mind.

And so I packed my car and drove across the country, refusing to look back. I couldn’t look back. The view in front was too sweet to take my eyes off of it. However, the decision to move was complex. Firstly, I needed to acknowledge that it was complex to move and create a life for myself on land that isn’t mine. I often think about whether or not I’m participating in a modern-day colonialism, one where I chose to move somewhere, without being invited or consulting the First Nations community in that place. I truly believe in decolonization and that by decolonizing, Indigenous people will be free. But I also feel like a fraud for settling in a location where I wasn’t invited. I’m still conflicted by this. Modern-day settlerism. It doesn’t feel good. Second, I am extremely privileged to have been able to move away. I left my family, my friends, my community. Leaving made me feel so selfish. I was fortunate enough to have the funds, to find employment, and to have friends to take me in while I found a place to live. But leaving is not that easy. As Black people, it can be hard to leave a place you know has all your needs, your community—especially for a place so unfamiliar, so unknown. I think of the displacement of refugees seeking a place to live, to be alive, to be free, to breathe. I think of the barriers that borders place in front of people seeking refuge. I think of the tests that migrants have to go through and pass in order to prove they are able to “conform” to the white supremacy already rooted in this country. Leaving and coming, travels and migrations: they are hard processes and complex ones.

I left Ontario with absolute peace of mind, and I left no one—not family, child, dependant—behind. I left without the need to conform or to prove and declare patriotism. I left easy, while my people, Haitian people, are at the United States–Canada border seeking refuge, a promise of a better future and opportunities, while facing sacrifices, a generous colder weather, and isolation.

I’d be a great liar if I were to say I’m living a perfect life in Whitehorse, free to be me, to show my Blackness, to live carefree. My new life in Yukon has still been marked by anti-Blackness. For example, at my work, when I straighten my natural hair, I still get reactions from colleagues: “I didn’t recognize you.” There are only two Black people at my workplace of over 300 employees. I am short (four feet, eleven inches), with a very distinguishable tattoo on my forearm and a nose piercing. And yet I was still “unrecognizable” because my hair was straight. Similarly, as president of a not-for-profit’s board of administration, I get questioned every day about my intentions and actions. I get undermined constantly, even by fellow board members. All of this is steeped in anti-Blackness. When meeting new people, I get asked how “my people” react to x, y, and z. I get questioned about the fact that I’ve never been to my homeland, Haiti, when Becky, Julie, Chad, and Matt all went on at least three to four “missions.” And yes, I still get told that my anger with white people wearing so-called dreads at music festivals is unwarranted. Don’t let my Instagram account fool you—anti-Blackness is alive and present in Yukon.

But there are also lots of great things, worth taking into account, about living in the North. First off, the impact of the self-governing First Nations people is tremendous. I’ve never lived in an area where people, white people, question their own actions and impacts with the intention of respecting First Nations people. Living in Yukon is living on recognized First Nations territory. A lot of this is due to policy changes and implementations as well as consultations with and directions from First Nations peoples. Their strength, tenacity, and resilience has made it that the North is a much more welcoming place for racialized people as these changes positively impact the lives of people from marginalized communities.

In Whitehorse, a government town, instead of seeing buildings and streets named after Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, and other nonsense slave owners, as I’ve experienced in Ottawa, there  are names of First Nations people, and there are First Nations cultural centres able to host a variety of events and feature the First Nation’s history, art, and culture. Hunting, trapping, and fishing season are done with intention, and with recognition of and respect for First Nations culture. For a Black person like me, who may feel displaced, it’s quite comforting to know white people don’t own everything. It permits me to feel safe and hopeful, as reconciliation with Indigenous people will bring liberation of other racialized people, including Black people, on Turtle Island.

I moved in May of 2017, and finding community, let alone Black community, proved difficult. I left Toronto with other people’s fears put onto me. From close friends to family members to co-workers and bosses, everyone seemed to have an opinion on how I was going to live in the North. Yet most of them had never visited or lived there. Alone, scared, and constantly questioning this move, I left friends and family with very little warning. I knew I was going to be told not to leave or that opportunities, such as work or partnerships, too good to pass up would suddenly arise, as they had done before. I especially didn’t tell my Black friends until much later because I knew I would be made a fool of. “You going where there’s snow? The hell? Where are you going to get shea butter? You gonna be dusty as hell!” Well, to my surprise, most Black friends offered to send up care packages, which was so touching. I felt cared for and, in a sense, permitted to go. I did feel like I was leaving my Black fam behind, to suffer alone rather than to experience pain together, at a political time when friends and close family members were being attacked in the public eye in the media or social networks. It was nice to know that, even though it wasn’t up to them, I was to go and my leaving was accepted, and that if things didn’t work out, I’d be allowed back. That’s a tough one with community. Leaving is hard, but not being allowed to come back, that’s heart wrenching.

Because Yukon, especially Whitehorse, gets filled up with tourists in the summer, most Yukoners are gone during the months of May through August, camping, exploring, anywhere away from the tourists! Others, who stay, don’t want to get emotionally attached to tourists who are just passing through. To this day, I get asked if I plan on moving back, even though I have changed my health card, license plate, and gotten a (real cute) puppy and continuously make my apartment a home. It wasn’t until autumn, when winter started creeping back, that people started opening themselves and their homes to me.

And suddenly, I was introduced to Black people! That’s the thing about winter; she can be real sweet, if you’re ready to welcome her. But she can cut you real deep if you neglect her, speak ill of her, or don’t welcome her! People would ask me what equipment I had for winter, and because I had already visited in wintertime, I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was finding my Black community. You can have all the warmest gear for winter. If you don’t have your people, your Black family to enlighten you and make you happy, people to trust and keep you cozy, it’s as though you have nothing.

The Black people I have met were also people who, like me, lived in big cities, mostly Toronto, and left with a need for adventure and the need to breathe! When meeting Black people, I wasn’t offered clothing or winter gear, but rather hair products, well-seasoned food, talks on and reviews of Black culture/Black movies, and invitations to family gatherings. This also was offered by First Nations people I met. My first Christmas in Whitehorse was definitely not lonely. I was invited to a multitude of family gatherings and dinners and met extended family members of new friends and acquaintances. That’s the thing with community, it’s rooted in culture and love. Because I was welcomed in such manners, I feel the necessity to continue doing the same for others. Whenever I see Black people, I don’t offer clothing and winter gear—I know they’ll find such things with ease. What they won’t find easily is community. We are so spread out, all over the territory, it can be months before we meet each other. The times I had seen the most Black people were in gathering places, such as public talks with Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, who is currently writing about and researching the history of Black soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway and their encounters with First Nations people. Or meeting Auntie Antoinette. I put the “Auntie” in front of her name, as she really has been an auntie to me, even if we’ve mostly encountered each other across great distances. When asked if there are Black people in Yukon, one of the first names to pop up is Antoinette. Owner of Antoinette’s Caribbean restaurant and very involved in the Yukon community, she shares her story with Black people she barely even knows while welcoming them to her “Northern” life. Another place I’ve found Black people are community centres and gyms! Winter hits hard with thirty-five to forty degrees below Celsius. We have to stay motivated and active, even despite the lack of sun! The first time I walked in the Canada Games Centre (a gym/community centre), my jaw dropped as I had never seen so many Black people and Black babies in Whitehorse! I’m sure they were equally shocked when they saw me. We’d exchange smiles so big with a feeling of hugging each other, similar to the scene in The Colour Purple when Celie is reunited with her sister and family. But instead, cognisant that white people are constantly watching (and probably with the RCMP on speed dial, ’cause you know...white people!), we exchange nods and smirks à la Black Panther, and carried on our workout or whatever business we had going. Every time I leave a Black person’s presence without making conversation, internally I melt, hitting myself in the forehead, like, “gahh, what are you doing, go back, go back!” But unless they were visiting, I am relieved with the thought that we will see each other really soon!

That’s the thing, Black people, we are everywhere! Even in the smallest of towns, in the furthest of lands, in the coldest of winters: we are here. And we’ve been here for a long time. In the Yukon, Black history goes as far back as the Klondike gold rush, and even includes their contribution to the construction of the Alaska Highway. Yet, Black history in Canada is not taught and barely shared from a northern perspective. Which is not surprising when Black people’s reaction to northern living is fear, confusion, and angst. We tend to fear the unknown. And when we are in a country that openly celebrates its racist history and refuses to acknowledge and remedy its practices, policies, and laws rooted in white supremacy, the fear of the unknown is doubled. We fear for our lives, and we tend to limit ourselves by missing what could be another way of living: one that is guided by First Nations practices, culture, and rituals. A way of living that would lead us to decolonization, progress, and thus, liberation.

In Alaska and Yukon, a term used to describe a new person in the North is Cheechako. A Cheechako is a person who has yet to survive a winter. As you continue to live in the North—some will say after having [MOU1] survived one winter, others will say five years, and still others will say over ten-plus years—you become a Sourdough. Legend and history have said that the term comes from settlers who would come through the North for the Gold Rush and would carry their sourdough starters through the harsh winters, in order to keep their culture alive. In other words, to become a Sourdough you need to survive and earn your right of passage, so to speak, by surviving winter.

I would argue that being a Black in the North, not only do we survive every day, but we also face the winter’s challenges in addition. If I am able to write, to speak, to breathe, today, it’s because my ancestors have survived. Northern living for Black people, in my opinion, is just a testament that we are far more resilient than what others make of us. We shouldn’t fear moving to the North because of the winter; we have, and continue to, survive much worst. This is an ode to northern Black people, such as myself, who continue to defy all odds put against us.


Excerpted and abridged from the book, Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada, edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware, which is published by University of Regina Press and will be available in paperback ($22.95) this February (Black History Month).