conference shows growth of democracy in the north

Things have changed dramatically over the last century. For instance: Whitehorse was a small town of a few hundred while Dawson City was the capital back then. The territory was isolated from the outside world.

Things have changed dramatically over the last century. For instance: Whitehorse was a small town of a few hundred while Dawson City was the capital back then.

The territory was isolated from the outside world. A trip from Dawson to Ottawa, for example, took as much as three weeks, depending upon the connecting schedules.

In 1909, we didn’t have democratic rule in the Yukon; the territory was administered by a federal department. The territory was overseen by the commissioner, who had a legislative council, but of that body, only half were elected, and the commissioner didn’t have to take their advice, but certainly took his orders from Ottawa.

The new council that was elected in 1909 was different: for the first time, all 10 members were elected by the public. Mind you, the public consisted of white males. Women didn’t get the vote until 1919; First Nation citizens didn’t get it until 1961.

After the First World War, the federal government went through a period of retrenchment. The budget of the Yukon was reduced by half, and positions were cut, including that of the commissioner. The Yukon Act was amended so that the elected council, which had been reduced to three members, could be abolished entirely. Fortunately, it never was.

Things looked pretty bad for the Yukon at that time.

The administration of the sparsely populated territory stumbled forward like a punch-drunk boxer for two decades, until the Second World War descended upon the North. There was a massive invasion, and a highway was built between the Yukon and the outside world.

After that, everything changed. The population of Whitehorse grew rapidly and the capital was moved there April 1, 1953. The size of the legislative council slowly increased. The territory had representative government, but it didn’t have responsible government. It seemed as though change was coming very slowly to the North.

That’s what the conference, titled Governing Under the Midnight Sun, this past weekend (October 23-25) was all about. Sponsored by Yukon Historical and Museums Association and Yukon College, speakers were invited to talk about different aspects of the evolution of responsible government in the Yukon and Alaska.

The celebration focused upon three key anniversaries this year: 100 years of wholly elected representation in the territory, 50 years since Alaskan statehood, and 30 years since the famed “Epp Letter” of October 9, 1979.

Jake Epp was the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1979, and he did something that his predecessors waffled about. He wrote a letter to then commissioner Ione Christensen, instructing her to withdraw from cabinet, and accept the advice of a cabinet appointed by the government leader. The commissioner became, in effect, a figurehead, akin to Lieutenant-Governors in the provinces.

This was accomplished without drawing up new legislation, making amendments to existing acts, or responding to violent protest. By writing the letter, he was putting into effect responsible government in the territory. There was some concern at the time that he would be challenged for making such a significant change through a letter, but no one protested.

Epp, who was the keynote speaker at the conference banquet on Saturday, October 24, said he was told by someone in his department: “Mr. Minister, we will never transfer resources north of 60 and make another Alberta out there.” How wrong that person was!

Speakers at the conference made it clear that the Epp Letter was merely one event in a long timeline of changes that took place over many years. The Yukon is governed today on the basis of many small past changes. Among the speakers who spoke to this were Patrick Michael, former clerk of the legislature, Ken McKinnon, former MLA and Commissioner, and Stephen Smyth, scholar of Yukon politics.

Some of the most significant changes in Yukon governance came from the Yukon land claim settlement and the consequent devolution of responsibility over territorial lands and resources from federal authority to the territory and individual First Nations. The Umbrella Final Agreement is a ground-breaking development that is being observed by many nations around the world.

Perspectives and experiences related to land claims were shared by several speakers, including, Marilyn Jensen, senior government official with the Carcross Tagish First Nation, former commissioner Judy Gingell, Senator Dan Lang, and linguist Daniel Tlen.

Former MP Audrey McLaughlin, moderator for the Aron Senkpiel Lecture on Friday evening, pointed out that Canada is unique in the world in bringing about major constitutional change, not by violence and revolution, but by peaceful negotiation. This is an accomplishment that we should be proud of.

The Alaskan contingent provided an understanding of the Alaskan move toward statehood, as well as an opportunity to contrast the American with the Canadian experiences. Alaska, for example, gave the vote to women and native people before the same actions were taken in the territory, yet almost from the beginning, Yukon had a voting Member of Parliament. Alaska had to wait until 1959, and statehood, to achieve the same influence in Congress.

Scattered throughout the program were snapshots of the historical individuals who contributed to the political evolution of both state and territory. My wife, Kathy, and I gave a slide presentation on the remarkable 50-year political career of George Black, MP for the Yukon. This was contrasted by Terrence Cole, professor at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks), with the colourful career of James Wickersham, territorial court judge, and later congressman for Alaska.

Isaac Juneby, an elder from Eagle, Alaska, presented a knowledgeable summary of the native legislators in Alaska, many of whom wielded considerable influence in the halls of power in Juneau.

Linda Johnson, former territorial archivist, and Leslie Buchan, government records archivist at the Yukon Archives, reviewed the names and faces of many politicians on the Yukon landscape for 50 years. Buchan demonstrated a new project being undertaken to capture audio samples of the voices of all the recent legislators in the territorial assembly.

Saturday afternoon, Parks Canada historian David Neufeld gave a presentation on the Danoja  Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City. Small change makes for a big impact, and Neufeld described how the Tr’ondek Hwech’in are using the centre as a catalyst for change not only in the local community but in the global one as well. Graduate student Glenn Iceton gave a talk on the role of the shaman in the management of game in the northern Yukon.

The conference was well organized, the speakers well-chosen for their knowledge and contributions, and the topic was one of considerable importance to northerners. Sadly, a few speakers were unable to attend for health reasons, perhaps a legacy of the swine flu, but that did not mar the success of this event. If you weren’t there, it was a darn shame

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.