It has been called the Ikea of dumps, and it’s such a hot issue that the local newspaper devotes a weekly column to it.
Located a few minutes drive from downtown, the municipal dump in Yellowknife is one of the few remaining dumps in the country where people can legally scavenge for treasures.
Lucky finds include everything from furniture to gardening tools to clothing to musical instruments and even cars, all piled in among the rotting food and discarded diapers.
Some scavenge for items to sell, such as scrap metal, while others seek to furnish their homes. Local lore has it that people have built entire greenhouses and sheds or renovated their houses with lumber and tools found at the dump.
Sometimes items get transferred from one vehicle to another without even making it into the dump.
The bonanza at the Yellowknife dump is due in large part to the city’s remoteness and the transience of its workforce. It is prohibitively expensive to ship heavy items in and out, so when people depart town many of their worldly goods end up in the dump.
Consequently, furniture, TVs, computers and appliances, often in pretty good shape, are there for the taking. Those who frequent the dump call it “shopping,” and think of it as salvaging rather than scavenging.
According to artist and prospector Walt Humphries, who writes “Tales from the Dump” for the Yellowknifer newspaper, after Yellowknife was founded as a mining town during the Great Depression it was enshrined into the city charter that anyone can go to the dump and collect whatever they want.
“[People] have salvaged furniture, dishes, pots and pans, books, clothes, computers, televisions, automobiles, snowmobiles, sports equipment, school equipment, boats and motors, garden soil, plants, fertilizer, jewelry, cash, diamond rings, food, fuel and just about anything and everything that you can think of or name,” Humphries wrote in his column.
He estimates that every year the dump pumps a couple of million dollars worth of salvageable materials that people have collected into the city's economy.
Besides being an economic necessity in these times of high food and fuel costs, the dump contributes to the culture of Yellowknife; it is a meeting place, providing a chance for regulars to socialize.
It is probably the only place in the city of 18,000 where prominent members of the community can be seen rubbing shoulders with the ordinary Joe or a homeless person hunting for cans and bottles in the mounds of garbage. It has also become a tourist attraction.
In 2005 City Hall imposed dumping fees for appliances and batteries, and more recently a $5 fee for entry to the dump. Rumours surface periodically that the city will limit public access to the dump for safety reasons, much to the alarm of locals who see it as the last vestige of Yellowknife’s freewheeling frontier image.
Yellowknife resident Terri McKay says one reason people put unwanted items in the dump is that the one and only Salvation Army thrift store in the city can only take so much.
“There’s no other alternative here really, you just have to throw it out. So if people can take it and use it, that’s the point isn’t it? It’s good to recycle it.” H
However, she warns her husband when he goes to drop off something at the dump not to bring anything back with him. “We have enough stuff.”