Legendary Yukon Commissioner Jim Smith has died. He was 97.
Ever since I was a boy, I have heard Yukon business and government leaders talk about Smith — often with a hint of awe in their voices — and how he and his low-key, common-sense style could get things done.
Smith moved to the North in 1940 and worked as a butcher in Atlin. In 1947, with Whitehorse booming after the war, he moved to what would shortly become the Yukon’s capital city. He was general manager of Tourist Services, an outfit well known to long-time Yukoners, and served on the Board of Trade, city council and the territorial council. The latter was the forerunner of the Yukon Legislative Assembly in the days before we got responsible government in the Yukon.
The feds named him commissioner in 1966. At the time, the Commissioner was chief executive of the Yukon government with full operational powers. When I interviewed him for the Northwestel Community Channel’s series on Yukon commissioners in 2015, he said that he took office just as the Yukon was transitioning from the days of “mud roads” and “inadequate housing.”
Importantly, he wasn’t just minding the store for the federal government. He had a vision of the Yukon maturing into a society with a government that could make its own decisions. This philosophy would sustain him through the decade he was in office.
Some people might say it was a simpler time, but there was nonetheless a lot going on. Especially for a jurisdiction that had just 14,000 inhabitants when he took office, a population significantly smaller than just Whitehorse today.
He led the creation of the public healthcare system in the Yukon. It was complicated to move from private to public healthcare while keeping the doctors, nurses, finance officials and the public onside. The Yukon government of the day lacked the administrative capacity for such a huge undertaking, and Smith made arrangements to get support from the B.C. and Saskatchewan governments.
His administration also had to manage the construction of the Faro mine. This was also a mammoth project compared to the size of the Yukon economy at the time. It required new roads, power and even an entirely new townsite. To make matters worse, in 1969 a forest fire destroyed much of the newly built town.
Smith was also a key player in getting the highway to Skagway constructed. The episode highlights two aspects that made him special: his vision, and his ability to make relationships. He knew a road to tidewater would be an enormous advantage for the Yukon. The last big hurdle was getting permission from the B.C. government. A new premier was elected in B.C. Smith spoke to Alaska Governor Bill Egan, and they hatched a plan to go to Victoria and convince the new government to support the road. Smith had developed a good relationship with the federal minister of Northern affairs, a young Quebec minister named Jean Chretien, and had obtained a letter assuring B.C. that the feds would pay for the road and its maintenance.
Armed with this letter, Smith and Egan got themselves to Vancouver and drove to the ferry terminal for the trip to Victoria. While in the line-up, they spotted none other than the newly elected B.C. premier. Seeing a golden opportunity, they organized a space to meet on the ferry and sealed the deal before they even got to Victoria.
Smith’s relationships were even more critical to the early stages of First Nations self-government in the Yukon. He went to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien when Elijah Smith and the Yukon Native Brotherhood, as it was then called, presented their landmark document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow.
Asked how things were different after Together Today, Smith said that “Instead of Elijah Smith phoning for an appointment, he came and knocked on the door and walked in. That was just how great the change was.”
Jim Smith was deeply involved in the creation of many things we take for granted today. He pushed the first Arctic Winter Games along with Alaska Governor Wally Hickel and N.W.T. Commissioner Stuart Hodgson. We can also thank Smith for the Yukon grant that has supported generations of Yukon students in pursuing higher education. Smith had developed a strong relationship with another Ottawa minister, Arthur Laing, in the run-up to Canada’s Centennial in 1967. In Ottawa, Laing invited Smith to come along for a meeting with Prime Minister Pearson, who asked for an idea of what the federal government could do to celebrate the nation’s 100th birthday in the Yukon.
Stumped for a minute, Smith then told the prime minister that the “one big thing” on his desk that was really bothering him was how expensive it was for Yukon kids to attend post-secondary institutions Outside. Smith pitched the concept of the Yukon grant.
Pearson liked the idea, and on the spot directed his ministers to provide the funding.
Smith showed his visionary side when the prime minister asked him a follow up question, inquiring if the grant would be conditional on Yukon students returning to work in the Yukon. Smith told me that he replied that the newly educated Yukoners would “be educated Canadians and they’ll add to the general benefit of the whole country.”
His career had plenty of disappointments, as he would freely admit. He commissioned the Carr Report in the 1960s, which produced some ambitious objectives for Yukon economic development. The Carr Report even envisioned a population of 57,000 for the Yukon by 1985.
Then came the oil crisis and recession of the 1970s. By 1985, the actual Yukon population was less than half the Carr ambition.
Even though things didn’t turn out as expected, however, the boldness of the Yukon’s leaders in the 1960s left us with roads, airports, power plants and many other assets that are so much part of Yukon life today that we hardly even think about how they got built.
Smith’s success rested on three things: vision, relationships and acting to get things done. It’s a combination that modern leaders struggle to emulate, despite having access to leadership development courses and Masters of Public Administration programs that the butcher from Atlin never did.
He was also determined to stay in touch with Yukoners while in government. He was often to be seen walking up Main Street, talking to anyone and everyone. He gave advice to younger politicians I know to do the same; advice that some of them have ignored to their peril.
We should be inspired by his vision and accomplishments. Each of us should be asking ourselves what we can do to leave a legacy for future Yukoners that is even half as big as Smith’s.
He told me that when he was in office, “we were constantly breaking new trail.”
He has hung up his snowshoes. His passing is a reminder that we need to keep on breaking trails of our own.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist. You can watch his interview with Jim Smith by searching for “Commissioner Jim Smith NorthwestelTV” on Youtube.