'Incredible need' for men's shelter in Watson Lake, pop. 790, after mine closure

Two years after the Wolverine Mine unexpectedly closed, the 'Gateway to the Yukon' has hit a low point, according to many in the community. 'There's a whole lot of people living on welfare cheques,' says Mayor Justin Brown.

'It's touch-and-go right now,' says Mayor Justin Brown, whose town struggles with high unemployment

Watson Lake — population 790, according to 2016 census data — is going through tough times, according to some local residents. (CBC)

Mayors are typically their town's biggest boosters, but Watson Lake's mayor, Justin Brown, can't help but sound a little gloomy when describing the mood in his community, these days.

"It's touch-and-go right now. And if things don't change in the near future, I can see a scenario where it will be … where it will become not more than possibly a ghost town," he said.

Watson Lake — population 790, according to 2016 census data — has long struggled with unemployment, but Brown says things right now are worse than he's seen in the 17 years he's lived there. It's been two years since the nearby Wolverine mine unexpectedly closed, leaving the community with no major industry.

Mayor Justin Brown agrees that a men's shelter is needed, but says it's up to the territorial government to make it happen. (Town of Watson Lake)

"There's a whole lot of people living on welfare cheques," Brown said.

The mayor is adding his voice to others in the community advocating for some immediate relief, in the form of a men's shelter. Currently, there's a women's transition home in Watson Lake, but nowhere for men to go and find emergency refuge.

"It's definitely a need," Brown said. "Unfortunately, it's not up to the municipality to handle that, it's up to the Yukon government to handle that."

A lot of couch-surfing

Rosemary Rowlands, the executive director of Help and Home for Families which operates the women's home in Watson Lake, says she's been working with other local organizations to advocate for a men's shelter or even a detox centre.

She says they're in "the very early stages of engaging this new [territorial] government." 

"There is an incredible need here. I'm actually really surprised that we don't have a lot more tragic, unexpected deaths because of the extremely cold weather.  People do a lot of couch surfing," she said.

"People are saying it's at its worst."

She cites other factors for the grim mood about town — two murder charges in the community last year, and the Liard First Nation embroiled in financial troubles and a leadership struggle.

"The First Nation being in as much turmoil as they're in has a huge impact. It has an impact on the entire community," she said.

Rowlands' facility is seeing desperation firsthand. She says the transition home has accommodated 76 women and children over the last year. More have shown up at the shelter door, but not all have been admitted.

"We oftentimes have to turn women away who are under the influence to the point that we can't monitor them and stabilize them."

Demand was up last year at Watson Lake's food bank. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

'They just don't see a future'

Rowlands agrees with the mayor — the mood in Watson Lake these days can be bleak. Front line services — the shelter, the soup kitchen and food bank — are "getting completely overwhelmed," she said.

"We have a lot of people in the community saying they've just given up, they're losing hope, they just don't see a future. And it's pretty sad.

"I think it's really easy to forget that the communities exist. I mean, we just keep our head above water. We're constantly dealing with crisis. So our ability to advocate and get this message out there has been challenging."

Patti McLeod, the community's MLA, admits that her community "has had its challenges", but she's not prepared to say that things are at a low point.

Watson Lake MLA Patti McLeod agrees that 'additional supports and services are needed' in her community, but says it's not clear what the priorities should be. (Yukon Party)

"I can't really say that this year is particularly bad at all," she said.

McLeod agrees that the community needs "additional support and services," but is not yet advocating for a new shelter.

"I think that there may be a need, but I could not comment on to what degree, or you know, how serious it is, because I'm not sure there's been an actual study of it," she said.

"I think the community needs to come together and decide what it is they really want to see, and to determine the real need for the service that they want."

Gateway to the Yukon

McLeod's Yukon Party now sits in opposition in the Legislative Assembly, but before last fall it had served as the territorial government for 14 years. Her predecessor as Watson Lake MLA, Dennis Fentie, was Yukon's premier for nearly a decade.

Still, Mayor Brown feels that Yukon's smaller communities have been too long forgotten. He's hopeful the new Liberal government — whose caucus and cabinet are dominated by Whitehorse-area MLAs — will pay attention and realize "they're in for all of Yukon, not just Whitehorse."

Brown hopes to work with the government to find short-term solutions, and some longer-term plans to keep his community viable by attracting new industry and growing the local economy.

"Watson Lake is the 'gateway to the Yukon'. It is the first thing that most people go through," he said.

"And it's not a good look when the only thing you see with regards to the situation is a lot of people standing around, a lot of people going to the soup kitchens and all that stuff. It's not a good look."

Watson Lake's famous signpost forest - one of the first Yukon stops for tourists travelling up the Alaska Highway. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

With files from Meagan Deuling

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