‘While Doug is sometimes seen as a man of few words, he is also seen as a man of action,” says Minister of Tourism and Culture, Elaine Taylor, about the recent retirement of Doug Olynyk as manager of the Historic Sites program for the Yukon government.
“He was the heart and soul of our heritage preservation efforts,” affirmed Yukon’s director of Cultural Services, Rick Lemaire, “(He was) a conscience for the branch who was always pulling us back to the reasons why we are all engaged in this.”
There is no denying that his work was more than a job: it was his passion. In his unassuming manner, Olynyk managed to work within the realities of government bureaucracy and got the job done.
He spent nearly 40 years in the field of heritage preservation, but it wasn’t the course he had planned for his life. That’s why I call him the “accidental architect.”
“I saw this job ad in the newspaper at the beginning of winter – a contract to work in Vitoria for four months,” he said,” and I thought that would be a good thing to do for that winter.” That was 1974, and that’s how it all began.
I spoke to him about his career in heritage preservation a couple of years ago.
He told me he began by studying engineering in university and then shifting to architecture. At that time, restoration architecture wasn’t being taught in Canada. What lay before him at the time was a conventional career in the profession. He hoped he could design skyscrapers.
The reality however, was something different: designing strip malls or becoming a cog in some giant engineering or architectural firm. That didn’t appeal to him, so when he saw the job posting for a short-term contract for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs recording buildings in Victoria, he took it.
One contract led to another, and when Parks Canada opened its new Prairie and Northern Region office in Winnipeg, he gained a permanent job.
Olynyk was fortunate because he had drafting and surveying skills, and he understood architecture, although he wasn’t too tuned in to the history of the profession. At first, he didn’t know the difference between a corbel and a pilaster. But he learned. On the job.
People were tolerant of his lack of vocabulary, and after several years of mentoring by the likes of Henry van der Putten, head of the regional restoration workshop at Lower Fort Gary, and extant recorder Gary Duguay, plus the purchase of several architectural dictionaries, he could converse with the best of them.
With time, he gained varied experience working on an array of projects all over the country, doing as-found recording of heritage buildings, and working with restoration architects.
Slowly his work evolved from recording old buildings, to assessing their condition and preparing conservation reports. He became involved on planning teams for the historic sites at the Chilkoot Trail, and Battleford, Saskatchewan. He also worked on various projects stabilizing and restoring buildings for Parks Canada’s operation in Dawson City.
He was infected with the Yukon virus, and never recovered. In 1989, he saw an advertisement in a Winnipeg newspaper for the job of historic sites co-ordinator for the Yukon government’s heritage branch. His opportunities for advancement in the federal system lay to the east and involved more bureaucracy than he could tolerate, so he jumped at the opportunity.
His combination of skills was well suited to the blank slate that the Yukon represented. Land claims were being negotiated when he started work in the Yukon. Olynyk, the generalist, was the right person for the job.
When he started, the atmosphere was adversarial, but he was patient enough to point out the common interests shared by both the First Nation and the territorial government.
In fact, they were embarking on something revolutionary: co-management. He quickly learned that his job was as much about building relationships as it was about restoring buildings.
In the years since the land claims have been settled, his branch has undertaken ambitious – and successful – restoration programs and partnerships at Fort Selkirk, with the Selkirk First Nation, Fortymile with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, and Rampart House with the Vuntut Gwitchin.
Special solutions have had to be devised for special Yukon problems. Moving Dawson buildings to stabilize the frozen foundations became an art. He remembers one Dawson contractor who had to raise a neighbouring building off its foundation in order to raise the heritage structure he was contracted to repair. The tenants didn’t know that the contractor was lifting it until he started – with the unsuspecting occupants inside!
Dawson City is a world-class heritage site with some unique challenges. When it became necessary to assemble a team to tackle the special problems of Dawson City, Olynyk was respected enough that he could enlist the willing assistance of many of the nation’s top experts.
With this support, Dawson now has a leading-edge management plan. It will serve the community well as it embarks on the long path to achieving international recognition and World Heritage Site status.
Olynyk’s reputation was earned in part from the leadership role he played in working with agencies nationwide to develop national standards for restoration, and a national register that contains the best examples of built heritage from jurisdictions across the country.
His reputation reached beyond national boundaries when he became a prominent advocate for the challenges of global climate change at the United Nations.
In Paris, he spoke about and published accounts of, among other things, the effect of the rising sea level upon the heritage resources on Herschel Island. There, high tides and wave action threaten important historic buildings in Pauline Cove, and melting permafrost is causing the local cemetery to slide down hill.
His career has had its moments of excitement, when for instance, he was adrift in the ice floes of the High Arctic, or nearly drowned on the Tatshenshini River. But his greatest pleasure may come from the remarkable team of specialists he assembled to work on Yukon’s heritage, and from the many interesting projects he has supported over the years. They will carry his contributions into the future.
Many significant heritage sites survive today because of the flexible attitude he took to his work. The A.J. Goddard, a remarkable underwater wreck in Lake Laberge, for example, was located and recorded with gentle behind-the-scenes support from Olynyk’s program.
What about the future? When I spoke to him, he planned to relax with some good books, and rekindle his life-long love for oil painting. But don’t expect him to sit around twiddling his thumbs; there are plenty of challenges awaiting him now that he has retired from his long-time career in historic preservation.
He doesn’t plan to leave the Yukon any time soon either. His love for the North is our gain.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His most-recent book is History Hunting in the Yukon.