the little school that saved the yukon

Never underestimate the influence that a few school children can have upon the course of major political and social affairs.

Never underestimate the influence that a few school children can have upon the course of major political and social affairs. Thanks to 15 Catholic students back in 1937, the Yukon Territory was spared from annexation into the province of British Columbia.

To understand the origin of this episode in Yukon history, we must rewind the reel to July of 1899, when William Ogilvie, then commissioner of the Yukon, having disposed of numerous pressing matters in the running of a newly formed territory, got around to the issue of education.

He met with representatives of the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. While the three Protestant clergymen agreed that a non-sectarian public school be established, the Catholic representative, Father Pierre Gendreau disagreed. There was some history behind his exception, and goes back to education and minority rights in Manitoba.

Father Gendreau requested that a separate school be established, funded both by taxes from separate school supporters, and from a government grant. It was to be staffed by the Sisters of St. Ann in a building that was already constructed. The territory was desperate to have a school, and when the ship containing the supplies for the establishment of a public school sank, the territorial council was willing to support anyone who could start one.

On September 3, 1899, St. Mary’s Catholic School was opened for 37 students; the school was inspected and financial support was approved, making it Dawson City’s first publicly supported institution of learning. While this was intended to be a temporary measure, by 1901, council had approved an ordinance that ensured the support of both public and separate schools.

This was further reinforced a year later when council approved a more substantial ordinance governing schools; at the time, seven of the 10 councillors were Protestant. Approval was given with little controversy.

The Sisters of St. Ann ran a good school at low cost to the government, and provided education to a significant minority of students in Dawson City. Over the years, the minority fluctuated from seven per cent to 42 per cent of the entire school population.

On two separate occasions, once in 1905, and again in 1912, the question of annexation by British Columbia arose. The first time, Liberal and Conservative politicians in BC raised the objection that recognition of separate schools in their province would lead to sectarian conflict.

The second time, the issue emerged when Manitoba, then much smaller in size than it is today, was attempting enlarge its jurisdiction all the way north to Hudson Bay. Territorial Council members raised the issue of supporting separate schools in the Yukon. The question was referred to Ottawa, and bolstered by prime minister Borden’s adamant desire to avoid “another Manitoba schools question,” the commissioner was able to fend off opponents to the concept.

The most serious threat of annexation came many years later, and it sprang from the dreams of a former Klondiker, who had risen to become the premier of British Columbia: Dufferin (Duff) Pattullo.

Duff Pattullo was politically connected, through his family, to the Liberal government in Ottawa. When the Klondike fever swept the continent, he was able to obtain the position of principle secretary to Yukon’s first commissioner, James Walsh. He accompanied Walsh’s entourage of civil servants across the country and up the coast to the Yukon.

Pattullo was able to witness firsthand the corruption of the Walsh administration, and when appointed as acting Gold commissioner, he worked long and hard to clean up the tarnished image of the Mining Recorder’s office, even receiving praise from the hostile press for his accomplishments.

Pattullo left his job with the government in 1901, and was quickly immersed in politics in the Liberal Party in Dawson. He soon became appalled by and fought the corrupt political machine operated by Frederick T. Congdon. Because of this, Pattullo and many others in a divided Yukon Liberal camp supported Conservative candidate Alfred Thompson in the federal election of 1904.

Pattullo moved to Prince Rupert, where he again became involved in politics, eventually becoming premier of British Columbia in November of 1933. Duff never forgot his connection to the Yukon. He saw the natural resources of the North, including the Yukon, as a way out of the depression that gripped the country through most of the 1930s.

Annexation, he thought, would ensure the construction of an Alaska highway, and provide access to minerals and forests that would lead the way out of the stagnant economy. Gold had nearly doubled in price and gold mining held promise for greater prosperity.

The constitutional fate of the Yukon and its tiny population lay in the hands of the federal government, which, during the 1930s, viewed the territory as a financial liability. If British Columbia were to take this liability off their hands, it would reduce the federal deficit; prime minister Mackenzie King was receptive to the possibility.

Late in 1936, the two governments began negotiating the terms for a transfer and agreed by April of 1937 to a number of conditions for such a transfer to proceed. Pattullo made it part of his campaign for re-election in 1937. Winning the election would be seen as an endorsement to proceed with annexation. Pattullo was glowing with the possibilities and potential of the Yukon.

The Yukon Council voiced its objections, but, it and the tiny population of the territory were viewed to be inconsequential by Ottawa. Pattullo boldly announced the pending signing of a tentative transfer agreement for October 2. 1937.

Pattullo’s enthusiasm and optimism blinded him to the one factor that would bring his plan to a halt. If the Yukon was to be annexed, it would mean extinguishing certain minority rights that had existed in the territory for four decades, or introducing separate schools to the rest of British Columbia.

The spectre of annexation finally stirred British Columbia’s objection, both by the Orange Order, and the Vancouver Ministerial Association. The Catholic minority, on the other hand, responded positively to the educational implications of separate schools for the entire province. Once the latter factor was exposed publicly, any interest in annexation by either the federal or the provincial governments vanished.

Where the budgetary interests of the federal government would be advanced, the objections of the tiny population could be ignored and the objections of the provincial opposition could be dismissed. Issues of rewriting the boundaries could be overcome and the provincial election seemed to supply Pattullo with his mandate.

But the presence of a small Catholic school consisting of 15 students in the isolated town of Dawson City brought Pattullo’s dream to an end. No one wanted the ship of state to founder on the rocky reef of minority rights, which was a federal issue that conflicted with the rights of the provinces to determine their own educational policy.

I, for one, am glad that’s how it worked out.

More power to the children!

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