death of an icon brings an end to an era

She was irascible. She was a raconteur, crusty and dynamic. She was blunt and outspoken.

She was irascible. She was a raconteur, crusty and dynamic. She was blunt and outspoken. Whenever you talked to her, you realized that you were in the presence of a force that couldn’t be denied. When she took on a history project, she became its scribe, its advocate and its champion.

She interviewed Yukon legend Martha Black back in the 1950s, and later did the same with Flora Boyle Frisch, daughter of Joe Boyle, “The King of the Klondike.” When she selected an historical subject, she engaged it. She was like a general on a campaign and would wage battle until her objective was achieved.

It was the end of an era when Yukon icon Florence Esther Whyard, known to all as Flo, passed away on April 22. Now, instead of reminding us of our history, she has become part of it, and her contribution has been huge.

Just a few years ago, Flo was adjusting to using a computer. My wife, Kathy, dropped in one day to find her incensed by her new machine. The Word program she was using had the temerity to correct the grammar and spelling of somebody who had decades of experience writing and editing. Flo was a member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly and then the Executive Council (the equivalent of today’s cabinet minister). Later, she ran for and was elected mayor of Whitehorse, which she led through rocky economic times.

Her awards and honours are impressive, including an honorary PhD by her alma mater, the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. She was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1984.

Flo was also recognized for her contributions to the history of the territory. In 1998, she was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Yukon Historical and Museums Association.

Flo was one of the founding members of the Yukon Foundation, and helped establish the Yukon Transportation Museum by purchasing the building it now occupies for a dollar.

She will be remembered for the many books that she authored or edited. There was a biography of northern bush pilot, Ernie Boffa; A Kiwi in the Klondike, a narrative by Mary Davis Moody, as told to Flo; a pamphlet on the history of Christ Church parish; and another about her navy dog, Ping. She also co-authored a book with Al Wright (author of Prelude to Bonanza) about the Yukon Electrical Company.

Flo established her own business, Beringian Books, which issued, among other things, a series of heritage colouring books about the gold rush, Martha Black and Joe Boyle. Upon examining my own copy on the gold rush, I note that my daughter had coloured in the pictures many years ago. Another volume published under the Beringian Books banner was All My Rivers Flowed West, by Bill MacBride.

But the work that Flo is most recognized for today is My Ninety Years, an updated version of Martha Black’s autobiography, My Seventy Years, and then later re-issued as Martha Black. If my memory serves me, the royalties go to support the IODE.

Flo was profoundly inspired by Martha Black, whom she interviewed in the 1950s, when Mrs. Black was approaching her 90th year, and then she continued to champion Black’s story. She campaigned to have an ice breaker named in her honour and was on hand to break a bottle of champagne over the bow of the Canadian Coast Guard ship Martha L. Black in 1986.

Flo appeared at many public functions wearing a replica 1898 costume similar to one worn by Martha Black. Dressed in historic garb, she also appeared in several documentaries about her.

I had heard of Flo long before I ever met her. My aunt and uncle, Barbara and Ted Wilson, lived in Whitehorse in the 1950s and 1960s, and talked about her whenever they visited Calgary. Uncle Ted served as her sports editor at the Whitehorse Star for a period of time.

I had several encounters with her through my work as Curator of Collections with Parks Canada’s operation in Dawson City. In 1984, she brought an entourage to Dawson that included Joe Boyle’s daughter, the elderly Flora Boyle Frisch, and we spent a fascinating day with Flora, visiting Bear Creek, travelling through the goldfields outside of Dawson, and talking about her famous father.

On another occasion, we were invited to her house for dinner during one of our occasional visits to Whitehorse. There, she showed me a lovely old music cabinet with delicate inlays. It came from the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City, and when Parks Canada restored the building during the 1990s, she returned it to its historic place in the large drawing room on the main floor.

Flo was on hand when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque, honouring Martha Black, was unveiled next to the Commissioner’s Residence. She returned, dressed in period costume, for the official opening of the building by prime minister Jean Chretien in August of 1996.

Later, when I transferred to work in Whitehorse, Flo hired Kathy to undertake research into another of her favourite historical figures, George Black, a long-time lawyer and politician and Martha’s husband. This was one project that Flo did not live long enough to see finished.

Approaching her 90th year, she handed the project off to Kathy to complete. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious and it would have been hard to say no.

With her passing and the loss of other champions of Yukon history, including John Gould and Les McLaughlin, Roy Minter, Angela Sidney and Annie Ned, we have witnessed the passing of an era represented by Yukoners both passionate and dedicated to their history.

Those are going to be big boots to fill. Anybody want the job?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in May. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net