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The colourful world of Yukon politics

The mob found him a few minutes before 4 p.m. hiding in the Fourth Avenue cabin of Montreal Marie, at the north end of Dawson City.

The mob found him a few minutes before 4 p.m. hiding in the Fourth Avenue cabin of Montreal Marie, at the north end of Dawson City. He bolted out the back door and sprinted up the hill with a hundred men in hot pursuit. It was early December 1904 and the light was starting to fade.

Plumes of vapour from the throats of his pursuers froze in the still winter air as they chased the poor man through the city streets. They finally ran him to the 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 federal-election time and in a bid to keep the reins of political power the Liberal government sent Registrar Girouard, keeper of the voters list, into hiding.

The list in his possession contained the names of all the Congdon (Liberal) supporters and none of the Thompson (Conservative) crowd.

If this situation were not corrected, Congdon was assured victory in the imminent election. The same tactic 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.

Girouard was reported to have requested asylum from the Mounted Police because of threats on his life. The Dawson Daily News sported a front-page cartoon depicting Miss Canada directing two men in suits and bowlers to dig up voters lists that 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 in a heated election by walking 250 kilometres to serve as a scrutineer at the McQuesten Post polling station. In the previous election the Liberals had received more votes there than there were electors. He was rewarded for this act of loyalty with an appointment when the Conservatives won the federal election some years later.

This was the 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 promised rewards of jobs from commissioner of the Yukon on down to ditch digger.

“Within an hour of the victory the Tories had every possible party member (and some impossible ones),” Berton said, “slated for the coveted jobs so long held by the enemy.” The employees and supporters of the outgoing government didn’t 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 due.

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

One such government employee 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 notoriously partisan but inefficient as well.

Black also scorned the man for his behaviour. He stated 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 practices have faded away with the passage of time.

While the politics of the period were raucous and partisan, the Yukon campaign trail had its own unique challenges with a riding twice the size of Great Britain. Take, for instance, the 1921 campaign of George Black.

The politician was in Vancouver in the fall of that year when a federal election was called. He was nominated to run for the Conservative party against the notorious, if not corrupt, partisan Frederick T. Congdon.

He left immediately, travelling by boat up the Alaskan coast to Skagway, then by train to Whitehorse. There, due to the river steamers being up on skids for the winter, he carried on overland to the ice-choked Yukon where he paddled to Fort Selkirk in a canoe.

I have seen individuals attempt to navigate the October waters of the Yukon many times. Massive blocks of ice swirl in the turbulent river banging together like giant bumper cars at a family fun fair.

Anyone braving these conditions in a canoe runs the risk of being crushed or drowned at any moment.

Not willing to waste time waiting at Fort Selkirk until the river froze, Black hired a guide and set out on snowshoe for the silver mines of the Mayo district more than 160 kilometres northeast. When his campaigning in that area was complete, Black travelled by dog team to Dawson City.

Somewhere along the trail, he fell through the ice and was drenched. Pushing on, his resistance weakened, he developed a case of pneumonia. I imagine Black fighting his condition while still 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 alongside Arthur Meighen and the other members of the official opposition.

But first Black had to make his way to Ottawa. He departed Dawson, travelling via 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 those pre-seatbelt days, he suffered only broken ribs and internal injuries, which the wife of an engineer at the North Fork power plant, a trained nurse, tended to him until a doctor arrived. After a couple of weeks of enforced rest and recovery, a bed was rigged up 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. Through his display of determination and stamina, Black won the respect of the electorate and retained his seat in subsequent elections until he retired nearly thirty years later.

Let’s face it - the modern campaigner in the Yukon may well confront physical and logistical challenges greater than those in most other ridings in Canada, but none has been called to exercise the fortitude and endurance shown by George Black in his day.

This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in fine stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.