The Dawson City Museum and Parks Canada Relationship

The Dawson City Museum project asks – How has the Dawson City Museum evolved in relation to government policy and community action?  We are taking two approaches to answering the question. First, we are considering the data chronologically to discuss the evolution of the Museum over time (e.g., Dawson City’s Community Attic). Second, we have developed key themes related to policy and community (e.g., The Dawson City Museum and Indigenous Peoples). To solicit feedback, I will post a series of working papers that consider the data in these two ways – that is, chronologically and thematically. These papers will inform the final report for the Dawson City Museum and podcast miniseries.   

Providing a thematic consideration of the data, this working paper asks – How has Parks Canada’s presence in Dawson City influenced the Dawson City Museum? Importantly, the question intersects with both government policy and community action.  Parks Canada is a government agency. Its presence in Dawson and the effects of this presence result from government policy. At the same time, Parks Canada staff have become a significant part of the Dawson community, developing personal relationships with other professionals who have related interest.   

Within this paper, I provide context and discuss Parks Canada’s presence in Dawson from the 1950s to 2021. Then, I articulate five ways Parks Canada has influenced the Dawson City Museum’s development – space, finances, training and expertise, collaboration and contributions to prevailing discourses about the region. The discussion considers how Parks Canada’s influence has changed over time due to the context articulated, including reductions in its budget. Finally, I conclude the presence of Parks Canada in Dawson and the personal relationships of its staff with the Dawson City Museum and its staff have had a profound influence on the Museum’s historical development.   


In 1958, Prime Minister Diefenbaker was re-elected with a campaign that launched a northern vision. He suggested Dawson City’s development as a tourist attraction (Stuart 1990; Taylor 1990). Reflecting this vision, the Historic Sites and Monument Board (HSMB) defined the Gold Fields and related features as nationally significant in 1959, designating 17 building from 1959 to 1967. At the same time, the National Historic Sites Branch began acquiring sites in Dawson City, such as the Palace Grand Theater. However, the federal government did not yet operate a historic complex. Instead, they leased the Palace Grand Theater to what is now the Klondike Visitors Association for tourism related activity (Stuart 1990). 

In 1967, the HSMB met in Dawson City and recommended a more comprehensive approach to heritage preservation and interpretation in the area. Parks Canada then expanded its activities in Dawson, acquiring more sites. By 1972, Parks Canada had acquired 16 buildings and properties (Graham 1972). Then, in 1978 they released a master plan for the development of Klondike National Historic Sites (KNHS). These plans originally included the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB), which the Dawson City Museum occupied. However, those plans were scaled down after the budget for the KNHS was reduced in the late 1970s.  

Despite the reductions, Parks Canada implemented an active heritage preservation and interpretation program in and around Dawson City as part of the KNHS, which includes the Dawson Historical Complex, Dredge No. 4, S.S. Keno, and the former territorial courthouse. As a result, a disproportionate number of experts have lived in and visited the relatively remote Yukon city, including engineers, conservators, curators, and programmers. These professionals became part of a heritage community that developed in Dawson City as it became an active site for research and heritage interpretation. 

While Parks Canada has had a pronounced presence in Dawson since the 1970s, there have been significant changes in their work. For example, in the 1990s, cuts influenced their interpretive programming. The KNHS also experienced cuts in 2012, resulting in the loss of six full time jobs and reduced hours for an additional five positions (Davidson 2012). These reductions had a significant influence on the size and scope of the City’s heritage community.   

In short, Parks Canada operates the KNHS and, as a result, has a significant presence in Dawson. Their presence grew in the 1970s, but not to the extent originally planned due to budget reductions. Subsequent reductions have continued to reshape their role and influence. The next section examines this influence as it relates to the Dawson City Museum. Importantly, the research did not focus on the growth and development of Parks Canada in Dawson City or to the tourism industry in the region, but rather considers the effects of the national agency according to those with a relationship to the Museum.   

Parks Canada and the DCM 

Interview Participants identified five ways that Parks Canada has influenced the Dawson City Museum (DCM) – space, financially, training and expertise, collaboration and the interpretation or discourse prevalent in Dawson. To some extent, these effects are overlapping and intersecting in ways that resist categorization. They can be timeless and present across the period examined. However, changes in federal policy have affected the heritage community broadly in Dawson City and changed the relationship between heritage workers. These changes will be discussed in more detail below. Within this section, the themes are identified and exemplified.   

ThemeInterview Quote
 Space  “I know at one point the Museum was even renting some rooms from Parks during the summer when they had some extra space where the summer interpreters for the Museum could stay if Parks had any extra accommodation.” (Interview 15)  
 Financially  “We had a 1903 bird’s eye view of Dawson, a poster … the manager at Parks Canada, at the time, borrowed our original and sent it off … and said, “can you get this reproduced?” It was not the usual size for a printing press, so they had to find a printer that could accommodate that size. They paid to have; I think it was a thousand copies of the poster made up and turned them back to us to sell. I guess, maybe, because they were a government agency, they didn’t need to make money, so they gave it to the Museum” (Interview 5) 
 Training and expertise  “But I do know that we worked collaboratively with the expertise, in-house expertise at Parks Canada, which included a full-time consumer and a full curatorial staff, a historian. There were a lot of resources that we were able to connect with in that regard.” (Interview 10) 
 Collaboration  “It was a joint project between the local Parks Canada office, and the Dawson City Museum, and this was documenting and recording historic sites, and objects in the Klondike gold fields. I applied for it, and got hired and worked for the summer months” (Interview 9).  
 Discourse  “It was very much Gold Rushfocused. It kind of toed the party line locally of the Gold Rush experience… I think it really complemented, in a sense, the Parks Canada narrative, because itjust kind of gave what people wanted to see; lots of stuff in the story of the Gold Rush context.” (Interview 6) 


Parks Canada owns historic sites and other properties in Dawson City. They have leant or rented the Dawson City Museum space for short periods of time to address specific needs.  First, Parks Canada has lent the Museum with space for staff to work and provide programming. For example,

  • Until renovations in the mid 1980s, the Old Territorial Administration Building (OTAB) was too cold for Museum staff to use year-round. However, the Museum began hiring year-round staff starting in 1975. Parks Canada loaned offices for their work (DCM Curator Report, December 7, 1976; DCM Minutes, September 26, 1978). 
  • The Dawson City Museum closed the OTAB due to renovations in the 1980s (DCM Presidents Report November 15 1985). However, the Museum still opened with a display and interpretation in the B.Y.N (British Yukon Navigation) Ticket Office thanks to an agreement with Parks Canada (DCM Newsletter Vol. 4 No. 2). 

In both examples, space from Parks Canada allowed the Museum to function as a museum year round, helping the Museum evolve from a volunteer run summer operation.  

Second, the Dawson City Museum has one of the largest collection of artifacts in the Yukon and limited space for the collection. As such, the Museum began storing some of its collection at the Parks Canada Bear Creek location in the 1970s (Dawson City Museum Society Meeting Minutes, June 29, 1976; Curator’s Report for the Annual General Meeting, October 25, 1977) and continues to use the space today. Parks Canada has therefore enabled the Museum to maintain and grow its collection. 

Finally, and more recently, Parks Canada provided the Museum with space for staff housing (DCM ED report September 15, 2015). The Museum at times struggles to hire summer staff due in part to a housing shortage in Dawson and awareness of this shortage. For a time, the provision of housing helped address this issue.  

In short, Parks Canada is a significant property owner in Dawson. When the Museum has needed space for operations, collections, and staff, Parks Canada has filled a need. That being said, Parks Canada is currently divesting itself of these resources (Interview 6), which limits its capacity to provide this assistance moving forward. Continued ongoing support – that is, the provision of collections space – is uncertain as the terms of the agreement were unclear at the time the research was connected.   


Parks Canada’s presence in Dawson City influences the Museum in both intended and unintended ways. Most notably, Klondike National Historic Sites (KNHS) is a major attraction for tourists coming to the Yukon and Dawson City specifically, contributing to more tourist traffic in the region. At the same time, once these tourists are in Dawson City, the Museum must compete with KNHS for attention. As such, Parks Canada has a dual role – it supports the Museum as it earns revenue and also competes for those revenues.  

Historically, Parks Canada took a more direct role in supporting the Museum’s revenue generating activities. Examples include:

  • Producing a post card series and absorbing most of the cost to print 90,000 cards for the Museum to sell. 
  • Contracting the Museum for projects, which helped the Museum generate revenues to pay staff, such as the Creek Survey Project to survey locations and artifacts on Hunker and Dominion Creeks (DCM Director’s Report July 23, 1979). 
  • Including the Old Territorial Administration Building, which the Museum occupies, in the contract for exterior security in the evenings and the contract for grounds keeping.

These examples of direct financial support were primarily discussed as a role in the 1970s. More recently, Parks is discussed in terms of its indirect financial role as they encourage tourism. 

Those interviewed with a connection to the Dawson City Museum in the 21st century also mentioned Parks Canada’s direct role as competition. As a former Executive Director explained: 

Parks Canada runs the National historic sites. They sell tickets to programs they run that in some in some clear ways compete for visitors’ time with the products offered by the Dawson City Museum as a cultural heritage attraction. Whereas the Dawson City Museum needs to earn revenues from its operations, Parks Canada prices are set by a national directive that is better able to offer affordable access to its programs and resources because it has the wealth of the federal government behind it in a way that the Dawson City Museum doesn’t.

Interview 1

As an example, in 2017, KNHS offered free programming due to Parks Canada mandate to do so as part of the Canadian Centennial   

In short, Parks Canada attracts tourists to Dawson City and competes for their attention, which is a persistent role for the heritage institution over time. In addition to this indirect influence, Parks Canada has had a direct influence on the Museum’s finances. Most notable, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Museum received help with income generation. The support was critical in establishing the Museum as a year round operation with paid staff.  

Training and Expertise 

Parks Canada’s presence in Dawson City necessitates the presence of heritage professionals to manage the Klondike National Historic Sites (KNHS). Expertise was and is, therefore, present in Yukon, which might not otherwise be available in the relatively remote area. Parks Canada staff then influence museums in Yukon formally through training and informally as relationships are formed within the heritage community.  

First, Parks Canada staff have participated in training and provided expertise of relevance to Yukon Museums broadly. For example, they have participated in the Yukon Historical and Museums Association training as experts (e.g., see the Yukon Museum and Historical Association newsletters from the 1970s). In terms of less formal collaboration, the former territorial conservator described her relationship with a Parks Canada conservator as follows:

[The Parks Canada conservator] and I didn’t necessarily work together, but we certainly knew each other, and we would consult pretty regularly. I mean, we were the only two Conservators full-time in the Yukon, so we definitely talked. 

Interview 14

Parks Canada has, therefore, supported the Yukon museum community broadly as experts within the territory. 

Second, the Dawson City Museum has benefited from the large presence of Parks Canada staff in Dawson specifically. For example, Parks Canada staff helped training Museum staff. Describing one example, a former Director wrote: 

[Employee name] has also been hired to assist with cataloguing. She is currently receiving three months training by … [the] Curator of Collections for Klondike National Historic Sites. In a cooperative venture, KNHS will provide [the employee] with on-the-job training in exchange for her “free” labor to that organization for this three month period.

Jones-Gates 1981, 8

The staff at Parks Canada also leant their expertise to the Museum in a variety of ways beyond formal training opportunities. As interview participants explained:

The Museum also did partnerships in formal and informal ways with Parks Canada. They had a fully operating and staffed curatorial lab here at the time that I started at the Museum. And so the expertise was shared back to the Museum for people like me, new in the field without formal education. I got to work directly with conservators. So that was a non-formal or informal program that the Museum was facilitating.  

Interview 10

At the same time, Parks Canada, probably, was the one group in Dawson who very happily sent any specialist who came to town, they’d send them over, “go talk to [the Director] at the museum” about whatever it was, so lots of advice, lots of sound suggestions from their staff.  

Interview 5

We relied a lot on what we considered the elite conservation or maintenance of collections. We looked to Parks Canada for expertise, and they had a big crew at one time. They had more than 60 people working in town. They had a conservator… They were very generous in supporting the Museum always.  

Interview 7

Specific examples of the support experts provided included:

  • Creating engineering and architectural studies as well as the designs for the Old Territorial Administration building (DCM AGM President’s Report November 26 1982). 
  • Serving on the Dawson City Museum board and committees (DCM Presidents Report November 15, 1985).

 In short, Parks Canada staff have become part of a heritage community in Dawson City. As such, they have formally and informally assisted the museum community broadly and the Dawson City Museum specifically due to their expertise. This form of support was most evident in the archival materials from the 1980s and interviews with people who worked with the Museum before the 2010s. While it has become less prevelant in the 21st century as will be discussed below, the support was key to the Museum’s development as a year round professional museum with trained staff.


The relationships discussed already could be categorized as collaborations (e.g., the training exchange). As noted above, the themes are not definitive due to overlap and intersections. However, collaborations warrant discussion as relationships between the institutions for mutual benefit.  There have been a variety of collaborations since the late 1970s. Examples of these partnerships include:

  • In 1995, Parks Canada began to reduce its public presentations and street theater (Swackhammer 1995). So, the Museum began to partner with Parks Canada to supply dramatic performances for their interpretive tours in Dawson (DCM Newsletter vol. 12 no. 1; see documents available in 95 seed challenge, Box 23b, Dawson City Museum Archives).
  •  The Museum partnered with Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Parks Canada on a school program titled “Secret Life of Artifacts,” which aimed to help students develop a better understanding of the role of heritage organizations (DCM Newsletter vol. 20 no. 1).
  • Parks Canada, Tr’ondëk Hwech’in, and the Museum have had joint partner pass

In short, Parks Canada is a related heritage institution in Dawson City, which provides opportunities for formal collaborations. That being said, perceptions of Parks Canada as a partner have evolved over time. These oppurtunities for partnership are most evident in the 1980s and 1990s. The examples provided above demonstrate partnerships have continued, but are often described as less significant to the Museum over time.  


As a national agency with experts in heritage resource management and interpretation, Parks Canada had a role in establishing and implementing best practices in Dawson city. Providing a tangible example, Parks Canada developed the cold storage method of artifact storage that the Dawson City Museum uses. However, there are also less tangible examples where Parks Canada’s contribution to a broader discourse have shaped the Museum’s development. Most notably, Parks Canada has had a role in establishing a discourse about Dawson City’s heritage value.

From the 1950s to the 1970, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board’s (HSMB) designations and Parks Canada’s site acquisition centered the national significance of the Klondike Gold Rush. Their presence and interpretation served to bolster a specific narrative about the region’s heritage value, which was then echoed at the Museum.  A Museum Curator discussed Dawson City Museum’s permanent exhibitions from the 1980s to 2021 disproportionately Gold Rush focused, which reflected the orientation of other attractions in and around Dawson such as those managed by Parks Canada. She states:   

It was very much Gold Rush focused. It kind of toed the party line locally of the Gold Rush experience.

Interview 6

 The idea of a perceived “party line” is important. The Dawson City Museum was conceived and exists within an environment with other heritage organizations in the community. They developed as providing complimentary activities. As one participant explained: 

Parks Canada tends to focus on the social side of the Gold Rush and the administrative side and the political situation. The Dawson Museum started off with a grand collection of things that related to mining.  

Interview 7

Notably, the quote highlights the distinct activities while also describing different aspects related to the Klondike Gold Rush.  

As part of the Lord Report in the 1980s, the Dawson Band commented on the limited inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in heritage preservation and interpretation within Dawson City due to a focus on settler history. As discussed in “The Dawson City Museum and Indigenous People,” the establishment of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin as a self governing First Nation has reshaped heritage interpretation in Dawson City. For example, after consultation with the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin Heritage Department, the Museum’s new exhibitions attempt to move away from a pre and post Gold Rush perception of history. They have instead focused on the people of the Klondike who have preserved and thrived through adaptation and change, including changes brought on by the Gold Rush that significantly changed the regions landscape.  

Parks Canada narratives also more explicitly acknowledge the historical presence of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin. However, the Gold Rush is the lens through which Dawson City history is presented. Interpretation starts with the Gold Rush. For an example, watch the promotional video below, which presents Dawson City heritage as the history of the Gold Rush. It begins with tales of the Gold Rush. The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin are introduced around 5 minutes to discuss the impact of the Gold Rush on their life and then around 11 minutes to discuss the importance of place to traditional knowledge: 

In short, Parks Canada contributed to a discourse that defined Dawson City’s heritage value as related to the Klondike Gold Rush. Parks Canada’s presence in the 1970s helped to more firmly establish the value of the region for heritage preservation. Notably, the narrative has persisted but also evolved with the development of a self governing First Nation with its own heritage department.  As discussed in “The Dawson City Museum and Indigenous Peoples,” the presence of a heritage department and cultural center run by a self governing first nation has contributed to reshaping the Museum’s interpretation.  

Discussion: Change over time 

As noted above, the intersections with Parks Canada – space, financial, training and expertise, collaboration, and contributions to the Dawson Zeitgeist– exist to some extent across the periods examined. However, the degree to which Parks Canada supports the Museum and perceptions of this support have changed. Perhaps contributing to the shift in the Museum as a community hub in the 1990s to the Museum struggling to connect with the local community in the 21st century, the relationship began to change in the late 2000s.  Interview Participants who worked with the Museum in the 1970s to the early 2000s spoke about Parks Canada and its relationship to the Museum in overwhelmingly positive ways. Here are some examples: 

InterviewYears with the DCMQuote
 5 1972 to 1982Well, during my time there, the person in charge of Parks Canada in Dawson was amazing. Anything they could do for the Museum; they would do it. 
 7  1976 to 2000ish  They were very generous in supporting the Museum always.
 11  1988 – 1991 We also worked quite closely with Parks Canada; I think probably just informally.They helped us with almost anything we asked for, Curator- wise and artifact- wise. They would give usadvice and tell us how to deal with things if we didn’t know.

Conversely, those who worked for the Museum more recently continued to speak of individual Parks Canada staff in extremely positive ways but the agency as a partner more negatively. As one former Executive Director stated: 

There are nice people who work there but the federal government and Parks Canada locally… I would not choose to work with them any more than I had to.  

Interview 1

The perception of Parks Canada as a poor partner is driven by a few factors. For example, in one instance, the Museum’s involvement was not mentioned in reports or discussions of a collaboration. As one participant noted, 

They have a tendency to take a lot of credit for things they don’t necessarily do.  

Interview 6

Parks Canada also withdrew from a project that had already started due to a lack of approval from the superintendent. The bureaucracy needed to approve collaboration means that there is a lack of follow through on offers to help. As the former Executive Director stated: 

Our new exhibits are going up and two months ago, maybe, two different people from the Klondike National historic sites approached me. They were interesting ways in which they could help the Museum with the installation and exhibits. Then, the last conversation I had about it, there was all this difficulty with getting the new superintendent to sign off on it. 

Interview 1

Two key factors can help explain the shift in the Museum’s relationship with Parks Canada. First, it is important to recognize that the relationships, which benefited the Museum, were ultimately between people. As an interview participant explained: 

Dawson is a community and a strong community. People know each other and rely on the resources that each person has, there was a really good working relationship between anybody working in Heritage in Dawson, as well as in the territory. I don’t know that policy had any impact on that working relationship because I’m not aware of what those policies were.  

Interview 10

Considering the relationship with Parks Canada more specifically, the current Curator explained: 

Our relationship with [name] specifically, has also led to some really great benefits. We’re willing to help him whenever he needs it. He’s also being able to be more responsive in getting the OTAB sign back up, for example. He has given us reference material of all their scanned photographs that are organized by streets, DDN, Dawson Daily News optimized scans. That’s fantastic [that] we have those resources, and he’s willing to share those with us. Having that personal relationship means he’s much more responsive. Our collections, and their content, in the sense of the information and the stories we get from them, can be more comfortably shared between our organizations. That’s much more on, I would say, because of our relationship with [name].  

Interview 6

The quote demonstrates that there continue to be positive relationships with individuals within Parks Canada.

Michael Gates is, in particular, a person who was mentioned in multiple interviews. He was the curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites for 25 years from the late 1970s into the 21st century.  The Director from 1999-2002 observed: 

When I was there, the relationship was very good. We worked with the Parks Canada conservation people and Michael Gates, who was in charge of Parks Canada in Dawson City at the time, he and I worked closely together.  

Interview 3

Importantly, when praising the relationship with Parks Canada, Michael Gates was discussed throughout interviews as an important friend to the Museum. When he left KNHS, the Museum lost an important connection point to Parks Canada. His departure may have contributed to a loss of relationship as he believed in working toward heritage preservation broadly.  

Changes in Museum staffing also influence the relationship between the institutions. From 2007 to 2015, the director of the Dawson City Museum was discussed in some interviews as more challenging to work with than previous or subsequent directors.  Archival records also demonstrate tension between the Director and those who previously helped the Museum (e.g., Board members who had, to that point, included Parks Canada staff). In particular, her work to transition the Board from being a working board that volunteered extensively in museum operations to a governing board that was more narrowly involved in policy is potentially significant.

Cuts in Parks Canada’s budget provide a second explanation for the change. As early as the 1990s Museum staff began to notice a change in Parks Canada’s commitment to KNHS. An Executive Director observed: 

Money was being withheld from Parks Canada just as I was beginning to leave.  

Interview 8

As outlined in the context section above, there were reported reductions in the KNHS budget in the late 1970s, late 1990s, and 2012. The 2012 cuts led to staff reductions that necessarily altered the relationships between Parks Canada and other members of the heritage community. Less money for staff mean there are fewer people with the time to devote to the Museum. 


It is evident that Parks Canada has had a significant influence on the development of the Dawson City Museum from the 1970s into the early 21st century.

In order to contextualize the influence and changes in the relationship, I attempted to conduct a literature review on Parks Canada’s role and relationships within broader heritage communities. After finding very little, I asked two different RAs to research the topic. They also had limited succes. There are a lot of news articles on changes in the organization’s operations, including articles on budget cuts. However, these articles focus on the effects of these cuts to the site operations specifically rather than to the heritage community more broadly. In terms of academic writings, there are historical accounts of Parks Canada’s development, but we found little written about Parks Canada’s relationships with heritage communities.  

Stuart’s 1990 article “Recycling Used Boom Towns: Dawson and Tourism” is a notable exception. It contextualizes Park’s Canada’s important role as one actor that helped to expand Dawson City’s tourism industry. It provides an important historical context on the development of Klondike National Historic Sites and its influence on Dawson City in relation to tourism. However, this working paper is more focused on the relationship to the Museum, which has most often focused on shared heritage objectives, and is not written from the perspective of someone who has worked or is working for Parks Canada. 

The relationship between the Dawson City Museum and Parks Canada helped the Museum transition from a volunteer run summer operation for tourists into a year round Museum with trained staff concerned with professional standards. Changes in budget and staffing has reduced the significance of this relationship to the DCM’s operations. At the same time, the local heritage community grew to include the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin’s heritage department and cultural center, which has in some ways eclipsed Parks Canada’s significance as the Museum continued to develop. 

The Dawson City Museum’s experience with Parks Canada and the limited research found on Parks Canada’s relationship to heritage communities suggest the need for additional research to better understand the federal government’s role shaping community museum development through a government agency that is not explicitly connected to the federal museum policy. While changes to Parks Canada are often discussed in terms of their influence on Parks and historic sites they manage, these changes also influence the tapestry of heritage institutions in what we now call Canada.     


Davidson, Dan. 2012, May 30. “Council Reacts to the Cuts at Parks. The Klondike Sun. P3. 

Graham, R. D. 1972. Yukon Tourism 1972 Annual Report: A Review of the Yukon Travel Industry 1962-1972. 

Jones-Gates, Kathy. 1981. “Museums update: Dawson City Museum.” YHMANewsletter. 7: 7-8.   

Stuart, Richard. 1990. “Recycling Used Boom Towns: Dawson and Tourism.” The Northern Review. 6: 108-131. S

wackhammer, Mc. 1995. Letter to the Canada Employment Centre. 95 SEED Challenge. Box 23b. Dawson City Museum Archives.   

Taylor, C. J. (1990). Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada’s National Historic Parks and Sites. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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