Walmart in Whitehorse: searching for culture in a consumerist paradise

We hit the aisles in Canada’s storied frontier city

Just before our flight touched down, it occurred to me that Whitehorse was the farthest north I’d ever been. Previously, the furthest north I’d been was Helsinki, even though my family comes from what is usually called “northern” Alberta (despite being more or less the geographic centre of the province). We were arriving in the Yukon a couple of days before the summer solstice. Out the plane’s windows, the peaks of mountains poked up through massive glaciers between intermittent clouds. The mountains grew bigger as I looked out to the west and the plane pitched forward. These mountains were rounder than those west of Calgary, where I live, as well as more densely treed, more glacial, untrammelled and clean. It also occurred to me, again, and even more strangely now that I was here, that I was travelling to Whitehorse simply to visit a Wal-Mart.

Why? A good question, with a complicated answer, having to do with investigating the kinds of culture that shopping creates. My theory and fear is that bargain basement consumerism engenders bargain basement sensibilities, and that we suffer because of the ways that we consume. In Canada, people often imagine themselves and their cultures in relation to the outdoors, and so much of Canadian self-definition is about nature and “the north.” But because Canadians spend considerable time on the hamster wheel of consumer culture, I wondered if it would be possible to find culture, instead, in the spaces in which we shop. What better place to look, I reckoned, than a Walmart in Whitehorse? But not only had I never been to Whitehorse, I’d never been to a Wal-Mart, boycotting it for the predictable reasons: low wages for its workers, a reputation for anti-union practices and gender discrimination, not to mention negative environmental impacts. I looked out the window as we hit the tarmac and noted the irony: my first trip to Canada’s north was happening because I was checking out a giant American superstore.

My partner, Aubrey, and I drove into Whitehorse and began taking the measure of the city, a city that was in good spirits as the summer solstice approached. It was Friday. The guy who rented me the car asked what had brought us north. I explained my project in brief. He looked at me, quizzically at first, and then said: “Well, good on ya, buddy. I came up here from Ontario, and there’s really nowhere to shop here. If you want to buy a suit, you have to fly to Vancouver.” He handed over the keys and wished us a good trip, turning to the next people in line.

Whitehorse’s location along the Alaska Highway has made it an ideal place for international travellers to stop and stock up. It’s become a kind of modern-day hardware and provision store along the old gold rush route.

He was exaggerating, but not by much: Whitehorse is a small, partly industrial, northern city, with a warm heart and its history on its sleeve for the tourists to see. From the sternwheeler the S.S. Klondike – a national historic site on the banks of the river – to the historical plaques along the waterfront, Whitehorse seemed keen to showcase its past. I learned that Robert Service wrote his key poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew, while working in the bank on 2nd and Main. I’ve loved both of those poems since childhood, when my grandmother gave books of them to me. The editions were illustrated by Ted Harrison; I pored over the rhythm of the verse and the vivid colours of the art. I could also well imagine Robert Kroetsch visiting the city and then dreaming up the sheer excess of the gold-rush fever that resulted in his novel The Man From the Creeks.

We left dinner at around eight o’clock. The sun blazed down and the day felt hotter than before. The Friday night festivities seemed to be getting an early start, but as we wandered up and down the streets one thing that became immediately and abundantly clear was that I was a southern, privileged and wealthy visitor. The poverty of the place was evident, and rusting, half-broken down pickups and SUVs ran the roads. Still, the city felt welcoming: an Indigenous man high-fived me as we walked down the street. I guessed the high-five came with a high degree of irony, but still. Our bed and breakfast host was warm, too. “Welcome to the north!” she said, toasting us with a tale about how she, like so many others, came for a visit and never left. At 10 p.m., the sun was still shining and as we sat outside we spotted a small fox running across the grounds of the B & B, traversing the gravelly undergrowth beneath the short, stalky aspens that grow up north. There was a rhythm to this place and a plan to visit Wal-Mart didn’t seem much in keeping with that rhythm. Which made me all the more curious to touch the tension between mass consumerism and the northern world around it.

The next morning, we stepped out of our room into another glittering northern day. Our “room” was in fact a standalone double-wide trailer set toward the corner of a five-acre wooded lot. The trailer was decorated with cozy furnishings and wood finishing, and had an old wood-fired stove in the corner. It also had a musty, wrapped-in-an-old-blanket scent that took me back to childhood days spent in my great-grandmother’s home in Edmonton. It was a particular mixture of things that I hadn’t smelled in at least two decades. Sitting on the porch of the B&B eating a hearty breakfast, we saw the fox again. It looked at us, too, as it trotted along.

When we pulled into the Wal-Mart, it was a warm and busy morning in the parking lot. The Whitehorse Wal-Mart is popular with RV campers, who can park for free overnight. Fifty or 60 RVs were in the lot, many parked, many coming and going. While this phenomenon is common for Wal-Mart locations in the United States – partly encouraged by the company itself – it is less common in Canada. In this case, Whitehorse’s location along the Alaska Highway has made it an ideal place for international travellers to stop and stock up. It’s become a kind of modern-day hardware and provision store along the old gold rush route. I expected most of the travellers to be from the U.S., but we spoke with one couple from the Netherlands who had rented an RV and were also camping there. “It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s different from back home,” they said. “We’re loving the space up here.” They waved to us later from their RV when we passed by them again.

But it is not all sweetness and parking lot light. There has been an ongoing conversation about RV parking at Wal-Mart in Whitehorse, because Wal-Mart has been perceived as having a negative impact upon other RV campgrounds around town. The Wal-Mart parking lot is huge and could easily accommodate a couple hundred RVs, which must take away business from elsewhere. Later that day, I saw a sign in the lot that showed campers where they should park; the store seemed to be forthright about the tension and provided some limits.

As we walked through the parking lot, a raven landed next to our small rental car, probably to see if we had any extra McDonald’s fries to share. The raven was black, sleek, and bold. It seemed to be used to humans. We headed toward the front entrance—it was Wal-Mart time.

Inside, the tube lighting was old, industrial, fluorescent. The ceilings were high, the flooring scuffed. There was no Wal-Mart greeter, which was disappointing, because the greeter is one of the clichés about the store. Once we were well inside we saw a greeter ambling toward the door, but he missed us. Looking up, I noticed that there were many security cameras. Every shopper and worker was being recorded by at least 10 unblinking black eyes. At each set of bathrooms, signs stated that one must not take merchandise inside.

Starting with a general tour of the store, I was surprised to see many brands that I had never come across before, the store brands of the legions of Wal-Mart subcontractors. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest private employer, with massive global supply chains. It did, indeed, seem to have everything that one might need—from bread to fishing tackle, jerry cans, Xboxes, and jeans—and it was clear how deeply a Wal-Mart coming to town would impact smaller local stores. The hardware section, for instance, was stocked only with basics, but it was nevertheless comparable to some of the old hardware stores of the small-town prairie main streets that I spent time in as a kid. If you can get your paint mixed while buying new rubber boots for the kids, why wouldn’t you? Having everything under one roof of course has major advantages—that is, after all, one of the reasons why malls were created in the first place, from the arcades in Paris to the Mall of America.

We headed over to the McDonald’s in the front corner of the store, which was the only place in the building where seating was available. In one corner, a young man was reading a science-fiction book. The McDonald’s was hopping. We ordered a coffee and fries, and I broke another boycott: I hadn’t eaten at a McDonald’s since the late 1990s. During that trip, I had the perfect Big Mac and then decided that I never needed to go back again. The fries in the Wal-Mart’s McDonald’s were extremely salty and tasty, in a chemical-laced sort of way. We sat by the window. A golden eagle, chased by a seagull, flew toward the window and up and over the store. We could see the Yukon River beyond the RVs in the parking lot.

The inspiration to visit the Whitehorse Wal-Mart came from the Whitehorse-born-and-raised trans writer and storyteller Ivan E. Coyote. I have long appreciated Coyote’s wry wit, vulnerable honesty, and down-to-earth, hard-working sensibility. I certainly could have visited Wal-Marts closer to home (and I later did), but Coyote’s writing opened up for me a way to explore how culture and consumption collide in a place that in so many ways defines Canada and that Canadians use to define themselves.

Coyote’s work evocatively captures life in the north. In these pieces, the north comes off as a cold, hard, yet hospitable and friendly sort of place. The sort of place where those who come from outside will be tolerated and understood—even shown some of the ways of the northern bush—but will still be held at a bit of a distance. The north in Coyote’s work is northern lights, the folly and heartiness of those who followed the Klondike gold rush, campouts in the bush, pickup trucks, beers, the complexity of lives lived in harsh circumstances, and the ability to laugh at one’s own foibles.

In the 2009 book The Slow Fix, a collection of stories and performance pieces, Coyote’s attention turns to the Whitehorse Wal-Mart. As is often the case in Coyote’s writing, the subject—the Wal-Mart in this case—enters the conversation from the side, as part of a seeming digression. Coyote is, it seems at first, intent on describing Two Mile Hill, one of the two ways to drive down into the centre of Whitehorse from the Alaska Highway. Coyote begins by talking about what the experience of driving down the hill used to be like, when the hill bottomed out at a marsh. Wildlife sprang from the marsh, a lynx gliding out of the bush and crossing the road “in four satiny strides.” The old road curled under clay cliffs and then brought one into town through the marsh. It was – and is – a road that refused in local parlance to be renamed “Jack London Boulevard,” despite a government attempt to remove imperial measurements—by getting rid of the reference to miles—and more touristy—by invoking another of the famous writers who have recorded the place in their work.

It’s at the bottom of Two Mile Hill that Coyote encounters Wal-Mart. Coyote decries the backfilling of the marsh with gravel at the taxpayers’ expense, and replays arguments with relatives in favour of the store due to things like the pharmacy and more jobs. The debate is a familiar one, from Salmon Arm to Sylvan Lake to Saguenay. Saving a buck matters, but it is the other costs that worry Coyote. “Now when you drive down the Two Mile Hill,” writes Coyote, “and take the corner that still wraps itself around the end of the clay cliffs, you pass the Wal-Mart, two car lots, a Radio Shack, a dollar store, a family restaurant, and a drive-thru Starbucks that all squat in a neon square bordered by a sidewalk where the marsh used to be. The gateway to the last frontier now looks a lot like Prince George, or Fort St. John or Thunder Bay or Red Deer.”

The new landscape, in which everything looks the same, is all but unrecognizable for Coyote, except for the few traces that remain of the place that used to be. The landscape has permanently changed, erasing the Whitehorse that everyone used to know. Saving a buck matters, but it has come at the cost of homogeneity.

That said, the traces that remain of the Whitehorse Coyote recognizes and loves are important. You can find them if you look hard enough for a Whitehorse that exists mostly now in the writer’s mind, in the place where the mundane details of the quotidian are stripped bare and in which the possibility of a cleaner, saner world can still be found. It is a place that now exists only in the mind. The lynx bounded across the road and out of sight; humankind has left its tracks rather more enduringly.

Swallowing the last of the salty fries, we headed off to the shoe section. Later in the day we were going to a local hot springs and we needed some flip flops. I also needed to find a gift for Father’s Day, and figured this was as good a place as any to look. We got up and waded through the crowd of mostly white and Indigenous folks to see what we could find.

Flip flops: four dollars. Father’s Day gift: a Superman tank top I hoped he’d find kind of cool. I grabbed a big chocolate bar for two dollars but couldn’t find one made with the fair-trade chocolate I usually looked for. That mini-search made me think of the notion of class consciousness, and the book The Age of Access, by Jeremy Rifkin. In this book, Rifkin argues that in the future the affluent won’t bother owning things, but will instead simply pay to access things when they need them, to keep their money flexible and liquid, which would in turn make the affluent class less weighted down with possessions and therefore more globally mobile. Wal-Mart represented the opposite end of Rifkin’s age of access spectrum, a low-cost store for the non-affluent, in which they tied themselves to the conspicuous consumption of many, many things. Walking around the shop, Aubrey and I spoke about the North American suburban relationship to things, to ownership. We discussed our own highly ambivalent, shifting relationships to class structures. It was easy to poke fun at a Paris-themed soap dispenser, like the one we saw in the bathroom section, but the dispenser also represented something aspirational, possibly as a symbol of an unrealized desire for travel for the consumer who buys it, or to trigger a memory of a special time in one’s life.

Still, the Whitehorse Wal-Mart is not Paris, or even close to it. Despite the fact that my parents grew up working the land in the northern Alberta bush alongside their parents, I didn’t feel connected to what Wal-Mart represented. I felt like an outsider. At the checkout, a young bored South Asian woman rang through our purchases. I smiled at her and she briefly flashed a smile before bagging up our things. We looked at the “as seen on TV” impulse items and the celebrity magazines next to the till. There was only one logical step left. Back to the McDonald’s for more fries and a McLobster sandwich.

An outpost of McDonald’s at a Walmart. Photograph: Rusty Clark/Flickr

There is a great deal of writing on the Wal-Mart phenomenon, but the anthropologist Lisa Cooke has taken a special interest in company’s Whitehorse location. Not too long after it was built, Cooke spent time over three summers in the parking lot of the Whitehorse Wal-Mart as part of her research on how the ideas of the north and the Yukon are created in the minds of travellers and locals.

Cooke spoke with people camped in RVs in the parking lot, exactly the same sorts of people who parked their RVs there on our solstice visit. She discovered that many of these campers may have been ambivalent about camping in front of a Wal-Mart, but they were nevertheless awestruck by the nature on display, even if it was a nature mediated by Wal-Mart, like watching a bald eagle over the river from the vantage point of the parking lot, or even from inside a McDonald’s. In fact, Cooke found that people preferred to have nature mediated to a degree, so that it could be safely viewed from behind a windshield and at a comfortable distance.

Does a bargain basement mentality cheapen our experience of nature? If we’re looking at nature from a Wal-Mart parking lot, is it everything it could be?

Cooke brought a generosity of spirit to her analysis. While she recognized the many ways in which Wal-Mart, as a corporation, can be critiqued, she met the people with whom she interacted with humility and openness. She came to realize that the people camping at Wal-Mart weren’t wrong when they felt like they were out in nature even when they were in their RVs on the asphalt. They were experiencing nature from the parking lot. They were even doing so with such sincerity that Cooke realized that she may have been looking for irony where there wasn’t any. In the end, she came to the conclusion that it was her definition of nature that needed adjusting.

So while we may want to view Wal-Mart (as Coyote initially seems to) as something separate from nature, it’s also true that the concept of nature itself is culturally determined. Nature is part of human life, and hence is partly cultural. Nature has existed without humans, and likely will again one day, but both nature and culture are defined in language. But do those divides hold up when put under the microscope? Cooke discovered that the specific version of nature that Wal-Mart campers hoped to experience differed from her own understanding of nature. She decided in the end that it was her own understanding of nature that was too restrictive. Her work signalled that separating ourselves from the world of Wal-Mart and all of its assumptions would mean performing our lives in limited ways. Many of us have been Wal-Mart shoppers at one time or another, which means we’re all part of a continuum. Wal-Mart RV campers’ ideas of nature are just as valid as my own (even if I resisted making that concession). And I can now count myself as a Wal-Mart shopper. Most North Americans live close to a Wal-Mart, and when I spoke with people before my trip almost everyone had visited a Wal-Mart in the past, making me the odd one out. Still, despite accepting the notion of the continuum of experience, one question stayed with me: Does a bargain basement mentality cheapen our experience of nature? If we’re looking at nature from a Wal-Mart parking lot, is it everything it could be?

I am, ultimately, part of the great horde of North Americans who are consuming their way across the planet and leaving devastation in their wake. Even though I may not be a regular Wal-Mart shopper, I am complicit. I fail in so many ways, in spite of my committed efforts to compost, recycle, and minimize my consumption. The anecdotal evidence I gathered before heading north amounted to one conclusion: that no one had much good to say about Wal-Mart. It is tempting to fall in line with that analysis, to separate myself from the store, because it is such a convenient scapegoat. But I’m part of the society that has created and sustains Wal-Mart, and so it seemed only right to come at things from a different direction. In conversations, I offered a counter-analysis: Wal-Mart is able to make many goods affordable for the working class; its just-in-time manufacturing model is efficient; Wal-Mart hires newcomers to Canada who might otherwise struggle to find work. I tried these points on for size, but none of them fit me particularly well.

For Coyote, Wal-Mart is a symbol of the destruction of nature, of the south, of the sickly grasp of consumer culture. But the truth is that the Whitehorse Wal-Mart has destroyed neither the town nor its spirit

When I looked around the Whitehorse store with these thoughts in mind, I saw a genuine diversity of class backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, abilities, and genders. People were enjoying themselves. Kids with Happy Meals were happy. Shoppers were able to keep themselves and their families fed and clothed until the next paycheque. And I was free to walk back into the sunshine and shop at organic markets and fair-trade clothing stores to my heart’s content. It all began to make me wonder whose interests my long-standing boycott had really served. As I left, I saw that there were quite a few more RVs in the parking lot.

Ivan E. Coyote brings up Wal-Mart again toward the end of The Slow Fix. Coyote has just been in another store in downtown Whitehorse buying a map of permafrost regions of Canada and talking with a disinterested checkout clerk. Coyote tells us about permafrost and about how the buildings in Whitehorse shifted and buckled until building codes were updated to account for the frozen ground. Even with the climate accounted for, though, Whitehorse was unable to support tall structures. This knowledge leads Coyote to consider what is going to happen as the nature of the permafrost is altered due to climate change, something that is an acute concern at extreme northern and southern latitudes. “What would happen,” Coyote writes, “if the permafrost all melts? The Wal-Mart was bad enough. What would stop them from building 12-storey condominium towers right downtown with a comfortable view of the river?” The Wal-Mart and permafrost thaw are symbols of the same trend: humans consuming their way across the Earth in search of evermore places to practice the individualism that is a hallmark of consumer culture. An individualism founded on the conformity of consumer culture.

But not everything will change. “My last trip home,” writes Coyote, “I realized that even Wal-Mart and permafrost-proof skyscrapers and global warming will never make the sun go down any earlier in the month of June in my hometown, and that 30 below is still 30 below, no matter how close you get to park your truck to the front door of the mall. A three-in-the-morning sun will still cast sideways shadows every summer, and the slow curve of the clay cliffs will always cut the cold wind in half as soon as you round the corner halfway down the road we never stopped calling the Two Mile Hill.”

Wal-Mart and what it represents has damaged the land and the spirit of Whitehorse and the north, but the damage can only reach so far. The Earth will continue to orbit the sun, leading to the warm midnights of summer solstices in the far north. For Coyote, Wal-Mart is a symbol of the destruction of nature, of the south, of the sickly grasp of consumer culture. I can imagine Coyote shaking a fist at it while driving down Two Mile Hill in an old half-ton pickup truck. But the truth is that the Whitehorse Wal-Mart has destroyed neither the town nor its spirit.

Downtown Whitehorse. Photograph: Gareth Sloan

Solstice was a good time to be in Whitehorse: folks were in good spirits and it never really got dark, though the sun briefly dipped below the horizon in the middle of the night. On solstice night, Whitehorse organized a Nuit Blanche arts festival, which included an interactive sound installation in the trolley house down by the river. We joined others using railway spikes to play piano strings that had been stretched across railway ties and linked into amplifiers. The taut strings, one per player, thrummed a low, tonal beat that we improvised together across the wide room; the effect was rhythmic and curiously communal. The next day was National Aboriginal Day. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people came together to celebrate at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, a celebration that included dancers and music and vendors and food and scores of people. It felt optimistic, but that feeling was undercut later when an Indigenous man pulled us aside on a sidewalk downtown to tell us how most of his friends had died by suicide. We talked with him for a while next to the old log church and then watched him walk back up the street from which he had come.

Shaken, moved, I realized that being in Whitehorse felt like the start of something to be continued at a later date. I’d come to investigate the intersection of consumerism and our cultural north, but it was clear this was a place of generosity and fascination that required a more sustained relationship. Locals were surprised I’d come to Whitehorse to visit a Wal-Mart, but they also wanted to make sure that I didn’t reduce them to their Wal-Mart – that I understood at least something of the complexity of the place.

We wrapped our trip up with a tour of the local brewery and a trail ride on the morning of our flight. During the trail ride, our guide paused on a ridge near Fox Lake, just north of Lake Laberge, which I first heard of in the poems of Robert Service. Our horses ate as much of the grasses as they could while we were stopped. We were looking across to a mountain range that I did not know. There were no other people in sight. A hawk circled high overhead. It screeched down almost on top of us as if to remind us that we were all just visitors in its land, to remind us that we and our culture and our consumerism are just passing through in time. To remind us that bigger forces than us are at work.

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