Yellowknife (NWT)

Yellowknife, NWT, incorporated as a city in 1970, population 19 234 (2011c), 18 700 (2006c). The City of Yellowknife is the capital of the NORTHWEST TERRITORIES and the territory's only CITY. It sits on the ancient rock of the Canadian SHIELD, on the north shore of GREAT SLAVE LAKE. Due to its northerly location, Yellowknife is the Canadian city with the most hours of summer sunshine, averaging 1030 hours. The city's population is predominantly non-native (around 80%).


The city and Yellowknife Bay were named after the now-vanished YELLOWKNIVES, a Dene band who lived on the islands of Great Slave's East Arm and travelled as far north as the Arctic coast to obtain copper for knives and other implements. They, in turn, acquired their name from the copper-bladed knives they carried.

Peter POND, a North West Company fur trader, was, as far as is known, the first non-native to reach Yellowknife, possibly in 1785 and almost certainly 2 years later. Yellowknife Bay appears on a map he produced in 1785, but there is no surviving record of his travels in that year and he may have drawn that portion of his map from information provided by Dene trappers. He did establish a post named Fort Providence, 30 km southeast of the present city, in 1786. Fort Providence operated as an outpost camp for FORT CHIPEWYAN (1778), on Lake Athasbasca in what is now northern Alberta, until 1823. (Present-day FORT PROVIDENCE, on the MACKENZIE RIVER, was built in 1869.)

Sir Alexander MACKENZIE visited Old Fort Providence in 1789, en route north in search of the great river that bears his name, and Sir John FRANKLIN followed in 1820, camping near the site of the present-day city on his way to the Arctic coast. But aside from an occasional hunter, trapper or prospector who camped in the well-sheltered bay, the area had few other visitors. Dettah, a tiny Yellowknife Dene community 12 km southeast, was the only settlement in the area.


Gold was first found near Yellowknife in 1898 by a prospector heading for the KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH in the Yukon, but the first free (visible) gold was not discovered until 1934. That triggered a claim-staking rush which transformed a lonely bay into a frantic, overnight boomtown of shacks, tents and dugouts.

Yellowknife's first successful gold mine, the Con Mine, went into production in 1936 and by 1940 Yellowknife had a population of about 1000. Manpower demands of World War II shut down all mining operations except the Con Mine, but development resumed at war's end. In 1948 the Giant gold mine became the second producing mine within the city limits. Due to depleted reserves and high costs the Con Mine closed in 2003 and the Giant Mine in the following year. Workings of the huge Con Mine, 1860 m deep, extended under most of the city and Yellowknife Bay almost to Dettah. In the words of local composer Robin Beaumont, for over 60 years Yellowknife was "a city where the gold is paved with streets."

Giant holds 2 records. In 1986 it became one of fewer than a dozen gold mines in the world to produce 10 000 gold bricks. And in 1992 a striking miner murdered 9 men, 6 of them strikers who had crossed the picket line, when a bomb he set blew up the man-car they were riding, 225 m underground. That was the worst crime in Canadian labour history.


Gold and government (federal and territorial) administration were the foundations of Yellowknife's economy. Gold put Yellowknife on the map in 1934 and government administration expanded after the city was chosen as the territory's capital. In the late 1990s these economic pillars received devastating blows: federal government downsizing, the transfer of one-third of government employees to the newly created territory of NUNAVUT and very low gold prices, which placed the Giant Mine into bankruptcy.

By 2004 the last gold mine had closed but Canada's first diamond mines had opened northeast of the city (Ekati, 1998, and Diavik, 2003) and secondary industries such as diamond polishing plants and a diamond sorting and valuation facility were established in the city. A third diamond mine is under construction. The city is also the staging area for the exploration of base metals and oil and natural gas.

Tourism is another important sector of the economy with outdoor recreation (wildlife viewing, fishing, canoeing, hiking), the midnight sun during the summer and NORTHERN LIGHTS in the winter, native culture and unique cultural events as draws. In addition to government administration, Yellowknife is also the transportation and communications hub of the territory.


Yellowknife had been accessible from the south only by air, water and winter tractor train from HAY RIVER, on the south shore of Great Slave, until 1960. The Yellowknife Highway, with a ferry across the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence, opened in that year. The Fort Providence ferry keeps a channel open until an ice bridge can be opened farther upstream, usually by mid-January, but everything still must come in from the south by air during spring break-up on the Mackenzie, which can last 3-6 weeks. (Great Slave Lake usually remains frozen until mid-June.)

A number of airlines offer several daily flights to Edmonton and Calgary, and trucked-in freight, moving farther north by air, makes Yellowknife Airport one of Canada's top 20 airfields in terms of traffic.

Like air transport, trucking is a major Yellowknife industry. Winter roads, mostly over frozen lakes and rivers, fan out from Yellowknife after freeze-up, serving isolated mines, like the Lupin gold mine, and the diamond fields in the Lac de Gras area. Millions of litres of fuel and hundreds of tonnes of bulk cargo and equipment for mining and exploration operations travel over the ice roads in winter.


Yellowknife was first incorporated as a municipal district in 1953 and elected its first mayor that year. In 1967 Yellowknife was named capital of the Northwest Territories when the federal government transferred some administrative control to the territory. The commissioner of the Northwest Territories and territorial government offices, which until that time were in Ottawa, were then moved north. Three years later, Yellowknife was incorporated as the Northwest Territories' first and only city.


Yellowknife's high-rise skyline, topped by a 19-storey downtown condo and mall and office tower development, echoes with the eerie nightly serenade of sled dogs, providing a striking, and typical, contrast in this modern city. (Few of the sled dogs are working animals; most are used for racing and recreation.) Pioneer shacks and cabins, most still occupied because housing is expensive, dot the original townsite on the bay, still known as the Old Town, rubbing shoulders with newer and larger modern homes. Expensive houses sit side-by-side with trailers in other areas where there is discontinuous PERMAFROST. Yellowknife, surely, is the only city in Canada with a street called Ragged Ass Road, named after an early, unlucky mining syndicate.

Education and Communications

The city has 3 school boards (public, Catholic and French) and a campus of Aurora College. Three local newspapers, 4 radio stations, 3 TV stations (CBC North, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and a Global Television bureau) and cable television by satellite, plus same-day delivery of 3 southern newspapers, keep Yellowknifers well-informed, as does the INTERNET. The nationally distributed Up Here and Above and Beyond magazines are published in Yellowknife, as well.

Cultural Life

Old Town's restored, log-built Wildcat Cafe is now a heritage site (designated 1992). Yet YK, as it's known, is a city in every sense of the word. It has a strikingly modern, zinc-clad, domed legislature and impressive city hall, the state-of-the-art Stanton Regional Hospital, a multi-screen cinema Olympic-size swimming pool (with wave action) and multiplex, which houses a twin-pad arena, gymnasium and gymnastics club. Its Fred Henne Campground has a swimming beach with showers and there are several marinas and 2 yacht clubs. Visitors come away impressed by Yellowknife's Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, a first-rate museum of the North, and its well-equipped Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, where active local theatre companies and visiting artists perform.

But the busy float- and ski-plane bases that ring the Old Town peninsula, and the bush planes skimming low over the city to take off or land, are constant reminders that the frontier still begins at the city limits.