the colourful world of early yukon politics

The mob found him a few minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon. He was hiding in the Fourth Avenue cabin of Montreal Marie, at the north…

The mob found him a few minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon.

He was hiding in the Fourth Avenue cabin of Montreal Marie, at the north end of Dawson City.

He sneaked out the back door and sprinted away up the hill with 100 men in pursuit.

It was early December 1904 and the light was starting to fade. The poor man was panicky and determined not to get caught.

Plumes of vapour from the throats of the pursuers froze in the still winter air as they chased the poor man up the hill, finally running him to ground, frightened and winded at Ninth Avenue.

A lynch mob? No, this spirited game of fox and hounds was part of the political scene in the Yukon in 1904.

It was election time, and the Liberal government was not about to give up the reins of political power. So it had registrar Girouard, the keeper of the voters list, go into hiding.

The list he was holding contained the names of all the Congdon (Liberal) supporters, and none of the Thompson (Conservative) crowd.

If this situation was not corrected, then Congdon was assured victory in the imminent election.

The same game of political evasion took place at Grand Forks, 19 kilometres from Dawson, where the enumerator waited for direct written instructions before he willingly coughed up the voters list.

Poor Girouard was reported to have gone to the mounted police seeking asylum from threats on his life, while the Dawson Daily News sported on its front page a cartoon depicting Miss Canada directing two men in suits and bowlers to dig up the voters lists, which were buried in the ground.

Politics in the Yukon was nothing if not colourful. It was certainly partisan.

One staunch Conservative supporter served the party cause when in a heated election, he walked 240 kilometres to serve as a scrutineer at a polling station at McQuesten Post where, in the previous election, the Liberals had received more votes than there were electors.

He was rewarded for this and other acts of loyalty to the party by receiving an appointment when the Conservatives won the federal election some years later. Such was the partisan nature of politics in the early days of Yukon democracy.

Laura Berton described the mad scramble when the Conservatives won the election of 1911.

The Conservative faithful lined up for their rewards: jobs from commissioner of the Yukon at the top, to ditch digger at the bottom.

“Within an hour of the victory, the Tories had every possible party worker (and some impossible ones slated for the coveted jobs so long held by the enemy,” Berton said.

The employees and supporters of the out-going government didn’t even wait to receive their notice; they simply left their desks “without even going through the formality of resigning.”

The Liberals leaving the Yukon on the stage were practically trampled by the Conservatives now returning in droves to receive their rewards.

Not all such not-too-civil servants were as willing to depart. Upon his appointment as commissioner in 1912, even before his arrival in the Yukon to take over his new responsibilities as commissioner, George Black announced that government employees would be dismissed on the grounds of incompetence or misconduct, including political partisanship.

One such government employee, who was sacked by the new commissioner, pleaded tearfully to keep his job.

Black responded publicly in the newspaper to accusations made against him by stating that the man, T.D. Macfarlane was both notoriously partisan, but inefficient as well.

Black scorned the man for his behaviour, stating in the Dawson Daily News of January 31, 1913:  “When government officials participate in politics to the extent that many Yukon officials have in the past, they court dismissal on a change of government, and when it comes, they should take their medicine like men, and not blubber about it as did T.D and D.R. Macfarlane.”

Fortunately, we can be thankful that such antics have faded away with the passage of time, yes?

If politics of the period were raucous and partisan in the Yukon, the campaign trail was both physically and logistically challenging in this riding, which is twice the size of Great Britain.

Take, for instance, the 1921 campaign of George Black.

Black was in Vancouver in the fall of 1921 when a federal election was called.

He was nominated to run for the Conservative party against the notoriously partisan, if not corrupt, Frederick T, Congdon.

He immediately took a boat up the Alaskan coast and transferred to the train at Skagway, which took him to Whitehorse.

Because of the lateness of the year, Black was not able to secure passage on any of the river steamers, which had been brought up on skids for the winter.

Instead, he travelled overland and upon reaching the ice-choked Yukon, secured a canoe and paddled to Fort Selkirk.

I have seen individuals attempt to navigate the ice-choked October waters of the Yukon many times.

Massive blocks of ice swirl in the rapidly flowing Yukon waters, banging together like giant bumper cars at the circus. Any canoeist braving these conditions runs the risk of being crushed or drowned at any minute.

Not willing to waste time waiting at Fort Selkirk until the river froze, Black hired a guide and set out by snowshoe for the silver mines of the Mayo district, more than 160 kilometres distant.

When his campaigning in that area was complete, Black travelled by dog team to Dawson City.

Somewhere along the trail, Black fell through the ice and was completely drenched. Pushing on, his resistance weakened, he developed what the newspaper described as a case of pneumonia. I imagine Black fighting his condition and making speeches in the tiny halls and roadhouses in the Klondike goldfields.

By sheer force of personal effort and determination, he was able to convert certain defeat into a victory over the incumbent Liberal, and take a seat in Parliament along side Arthur Meighen and the other members of the official opposition.

But first, Black had to make his way to Ottawa. He departed Dawson, travelling by way of Mayo on his way out of the territory.

He had not long left the Klondike capital when the car in which he was driving went off the road and rolled over, pinning him underneath.

Fortunately for Black, in these pre-seatbelt days, he suffered only broken ribs and internal injuries, which a trained nurse, the wife of an engineer at the North Fork power plant, tended to until a doctor could come to his aid.

After a couple of weeks of enforced rest and recovery, a bed was rigged for him on a dogsled, and by easy stages, he was transported over the winter road to Whitehorse.

Such were the challenges of the North, and through his display of determination and stamina,

Black won the respect of the electorate and retained his seat through several subsequent elections until he retired nearly 30 years later.

Let’s face it, the modern campaigner in the Yukon is confronts physical challenges greater than those in most other ridings in Canada, but few have had to exercise their stamina and endurance the way they did here before air travel and a good road system made it easy.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.