When I moved to Dawson City in 1978, there was something of a constitutional crisis going on in the community.
Due to a variety of circumstances, the territorial government had stepped in and appointed an administrator to run the town. There was a big hue and cry about losing the democratic process. The issue was even raised on Parliament Hill, as I recall.
The same thing happened again recently in Dawson City, and again there was tremendous controversy over the loss of self-determination in the community. Democracy, it seems, is something we take for granted until it is taken away, at which point citizens rally and demand it.
The road to responsible government in the Yukon is long and twisted, and dates back more than a century to the Yukon Act of 1898. But it wasn’t until a decade later that representative government was introduced to the territory.
The territory operated under federal paternalism until 1979, when then-minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jake Epp, transferred portfolio responsibility and executive decision-making to the elected assembly.
Land claims have also played a prominent role in giving voice to First Nation citizens, and introducing First Nation self-government into the constitutional landscape of the territory
The Yukon Historical and Museums Association and Yukon College will be celebrating these and other constitutional milestones in a triple-header by sponsoring a conference next week, October 22 to 25, titled: Governing Under the Midnight Sun.
The conference will be honouring three separate events that have had an effect on governance in Yukon and Alaska: The 100th anniversary of the first wholly elected Yukon legislative assembly, the 50th anniversary of Alaskan statehood, and the 30th anniversary of the Epp letter.
Starting with a reception on Thursday evening, the conference will span four days of presentations and social functions, including a research workshop to wrap things up on Sunday morning, and a banquet on Saturday evening which features guest speaker Epp, in the foyer of the Yukon government building.
The sessions, which will take place at Yukon College, will commence Friday morning with an overview to governing in the northern context, followed by sessions on Youth Participation in Governance and Educating for Leadership. From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., there will be student posters and presentations.
Friday will conclude with an evening reception at the Beringia Centre, which precedes the Aaron Senkpiel lecture. Former Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin will moderate presentations on People Who Carried the Day by speakers Judy Gingell, Ken McKinnon, Isaac Juneby and former Alaska State Senator Vic Fischer.
Saturday will include presentations on important people and events in the transition from representative to responsible government in the Yukon, People and events related to Alaskan Statehood and finally, cross-boundary issues.
If you are interested in attending this conference, or in attending to hear specific speakers on a specific day, there are various registration packages for you to choose from. You can get more details by contacting YHMA at 667-4704 or email@example.com. There is a website with more details about the conference at yhma.wordpress.com
For book lovers, there will be a book fair during the lunch hour on Saturday which should contain a good selection of material on Yukon history.
Included in this selection, I hope, will be the excellent works of Steven Smyth whose book The Yukon Chronology, along with Kirk Cameron and Graham Gomme’s volume Compendium of Documents Relating to the Constitutional Development of the Yukon Territory, comprise the two volume set outlining the Yukon’s constitutional foundations. These two are required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the Yukon has evolved to its current corporate entity.
Speaking of books, there will on sale a new book celebrating 100 years of wholly elected government for the Yukon: With the people who live here: The History of the Yukon Legislature 1909-1961, by Linda Johnson, and published by the Yukon Legislative Assembly. It will be on sale for the first time since its release earlier this year.
It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time that the territory was managed by appointees from Ottawa, and that during later decades, the threat of removing all representation hung precariously over us, but it is true. We should never lose sight of this fact, and this volume reminds us.
The book, which is 376 pages long, describes events related to the first 18 wholly elected territorial councils, spanning a period of 52 years. Johnson, the former Yukon territorial archivist, now retired, who spent over 20 years developing this manuscript for publication, is well positioned to write on the topic.
The book takes us through the events, the issues, the campaigns and the personalities involved in the territorial elections and assemblies during interesting times in the development of the Yukon.
The key factors affecting the governing of the territory were its declining population, combined with external factors such as federal policy decisions and international affairs.
With a declining population, the appropriations from Ottawa also declined. The First World War had an impact, and toward its conclusion, many civil service positions, including that of commissioner, were abolished. Prohibition was then a hot topic, but lasted only a short time in the Yukon when it was realized how important liquor revenues were to the territorial coffers.
During the low times of the Depression, the territorial council was threatened with complete abolition but hung on by its fingernails. Nor was the territory ready for the impact of the Second World War.
The construction of the Alaska Highway and the rapid ascension of Whitehorse as the centre of population, commerce and transportation in the territory brought about changes in the administration, most notably the relocation of the territorial capital. The course of these changes was plotted by forces and minds located outside of the territory.
Johnson’s book is also blessed with a selection of more than 100 well-chosen photographs that are also an important chronicle of the people, places and events that figured in Yukon’s development.
I found the book to be an interesting read, covering important events in a way that made it hard to put it down until I was finished. If I had a complaint about this volume, it would be the lack of an index rather than a lack of content.
So here is something to look forward to. If you want to achieve a greater understanding of the evolution of government in the North, as presented by many of the people involved, you’ll want to attend. If you are keen on democracy, you will find this a must.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based