The woman who ran the Yukon

I attended a recent "Throwback Thursday" sponsored by the MacBride Museum featuring women in Yukon history.

I attended a recent “Throwback Thursday” sponsored by the MacBride Museum featuring women in Yukon history. Pat Ellis and former territorial archivist Linda Johnson profiled a woman who is one of the most significant women in Yukon history: Victoria Faulkner.

I had the pleasure of meeting Victoria Faulkner in 1979, just two years before she passed away. What was immediately apparent was that she had a strong-willed, self-directed spirit. She was, in fact, a woman of remarkable accomplishment.

Victoria Anna Belle Faulkner was born in Tacoma, Washington , June 21, 1897, the daughter of John Thomas Faulkner, an Englishman, and Isabella (McDonald) Faulkner from Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

John Faulkner left his wife and infant daughter in Tacoma while he scaled the Chilkoot Pass in early 1898, en route to the Klondike. He set about mining and in 1901 his wife and daughter joined him on Sulphur Creek.

They soon moved to Hunker Creek, and that is where Victoria spent her formative years. She attended school in a tiny school house at the mouth of Last Chance Creek, taking a dog team in the winter and walking the five kilometres in the summer.

When she was older, she was sent to St. Mary’s Catholic School in Dawson City where she continued her education, developing a love of literature, learning French, and taking music. She learned to play the organ and earned extra money by accompanying silent movies for three dollars a show.

These courses, plus shorthand and business practices, were invaluable skills that served her well as an adult. In 1916 she was hired by Joe Boyle, who owned and managed one of the large dredge companies operating around Dawson City. Her initial monthly wage of $50 was quickly raised to $75 per month.

Her mother died in 1917, leaving Victoria acting as surrogate mother to her younger sister and housekeeper for her father. August 1, 1918, she was hired as stenographer for George MacKenzie, who was acting gold commissioner of the Yukon at the time.

The timing was fortuitous. With so many men drawn away from the territory due to the war, she may have been the only person available who could fill the job. Because of her schooling, she could, for example, take shorthand in both French and English. In the wake of massive budget cuts and staff reductions, she was the only remaining secretary, and may have also been paid at a lower wage than a man would command at that time.

Whatever the circumstances, it was the beginning of a career with the federal government that spanned 45 years. Victoria was intelligent, astute, efficient and a perfectionist. She organized and maintained the government files and had access to a wide range of information. As noted by Linda Johnson, cited in the biography of Faulkner written by Joyce Hayden, Victoria “used to laugh and say that she knew everything about everyone, everywhere in the territory.”

Victoria’s father moved to Mayo to work in the early 1920s and remained there until 1938. Her sister moved outside and married, so Victoria was on her own. A single career woman in those times was outside the normal expectations. Victoria took a vacation in Hawaii on her own in 1929. She purchased an automobile in 1934, the first in a succession of cars she named “Betsy,” and she acquired a cabin at nearby Rock Creek, where she could enjoy her weekends canoeing and fishing.

Meanwhile, Commissioner MacKenzie was replaced by Percy Reid in 1925, who was in turn replaced, after his untimely death in 1927, by George McLean. By the time McLean assumed office, the office of gold commissioner had been rolled into that of the comptroller.

George Jeckell replaced McLean in 1932, and remained in the position of comptroller for 14 years, the longest tenure of any boss during Victoria’s career. Men like Jeckell would be called away to Ottawa for long periods of time. Between freeze-up in the fall and spring break-up, many of the administrative decisions fell to Victoria. In an interview, former Commissioner Jim Smith observed that Victoria also played a vital role as liaison between the commissioner and the public.

It is equally remarkable that during these early times, when the civil service was highly politicized, she survived numerous changes of government. Generally, with a change of government, the appointees from the outgoing government would leave office quickly to avoid being trampled by the incoming horde of new appointees.

Jeckell was followed in quick succession by several more commissioners, each of whom relied upon her breadth of corporate knowledge and familiarity with the Yukon situation to help them execute their duties.

She served nine consecutive commissioners, gold commissioners, comptrollers and controllers, before moving from Commissioner Frederick Collins’ office in 1960 to the historic sites division of the Department of Northern Affairs. There she compiled information on historic Dawson City buildings and prominent historical Yukon personalities. She was the ideal person for that job, having lived in the goldfields and Dawson City during the early years of the century. She knew many of the personalities, like Joe Boyle, from first-hand experience. She was in Dawson City during the First and Second World Wars. She remembered the sinking of the Princess Sophia and witnessed the gradual decline of territorial fortunes between 1920 and 1940.

Victoria also experienced the rapid growth of Whitehorse and was there when the government was uprooted and moved from Dawson City to the current capital in 1953. She was herself a piece of living history.

When she retired in 1962, she became involved in the Dawson Festival, followed by a decade working for the Chamber of Commerce in Whitehorse. She was the president of the Whitehorse Business and Professional Women’s Club. The new women’s centre, which was opened in 1975, was named in her honour. The following year, she was instrumental in founding the Golden Age Society. Victoria also served on the Yukon Historic Sites and Monuments Board during the 1970s.

Always formal of dress and manner, she has variously been described as proper, astute, practical and very private. She played an important role in the administration of the territory in the post gold rush era. She was in fact, the power behind the throne, no small feat for a woman in the first half of the 20th Century.

There is much more that could be said about her; she should be remembered as one of the giant figures in Yukon history.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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