When he was seven, Doug Urquhart built a tandem bicycle with his friend and cycled 200 kilometres north of his Toronto home. It was nighttime when his father caught up to him, and he was still pedalling along the side of the road.
Even at that age, something was pulling him north.
Doug’s son, Robin, said his father never really explained to him why he was so fascinated by the North. “It was almost instinctual.”
Whatever the reason, Urquhart moved to the North right after finishing his master’s degree in zoology. And though he travelled widely throughout his life, the North was always his home.
Doug Urquhart, biologist, cartoonist and facilitator, died suddenly of a heart attack on Dec. 2. He was 68.
Doug may have inherited his sense of adventure from his parents. Fred and Norah Urquhart spent decades studying the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, and travelled across the United States following them. They were instrumental in the 1975 discovery of wintering sites in Mexico where monarchs congregate by the millions.
Their son, too, began his career as a biologist. He worked in northern communities from Cambridge Bay to Fort Smith, and became the regional biologist for the Arctic.
But that was never enough for him. What his father really wanted, Robin explained, was “to live out in the bush like a trapper.”
So he did. By that point, his high-school sweetheart, Judi, had moved up north with him. Together, they decided to build a cabin by a lake 60 kilometres north of Atlin, B.C.
They had to learn a lot of things on the fly. At one point, they built a dog-powered washing machine based on a design they found in a book. It was basically a circular drum that held clothes and water, built around an oversized hamster wheel. They’d get one of their dogs to climb into the wheel and run, spinning the clothes around until they were clean.
They travelled, too. Once, they sailed a traditional outrigger canoe for four months around the Fiji islands. They didn’t know how, of course. They just figured it out as they went.
“Some of the stuff they did was foolhardy,” Robin said. “They didn’t seem to have any fear.”
Eventually, Doug and Judi settled in Atlin to raise their two children, Robin and Kaitlyn. But Doug’s sense of adventure never left him.
Robin remembers one time when something went wrong with the transmission on their car and they could only drive it in reverse. While they waited to get it fixed, Doug just drove it around town in reverse for a week. He let his kids drive it, too – at six years old, Robin manned the steering wheel while his sister worked the pedals.
It was around then that Doug started drawing cartoons – because it was a slower period in his life, Robin thinks.
“He never really found a cartoon that was representative of the North, or northern ideals,” Robin explained. So he decided to do it himself.
Doug became the editorial cartoonist for the Yukon News. He also created PAWS, a comic strip that painted a humorous picture of life in the North and poked fun, gently, at scientists, bureaucrats and southerners.
He eventually published two anthologies, Skookum’s North and Eyes of the Husky.
Doug gave up the cartoons when Robin graduated from university. But the skill came in handy throughout his life.
In the late 1980s, Doug became the secretariat of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, which is where Brian Pelchat met him. At the time, Pelchat was working as the chief of big game management for the Yukon government.
Doug worked as a facilitator at management meetings. Pelchat said he had a special way of getting experts to talk in plain English. “He could translate all of this technical information into something that hunters and trappers and fishers could understand.”
He was also good at dealing with conflicts. Pelchat recalled one meeting between outfitters and First Nations, where they were discussing whether to implement moose and caribou quotas for the outfitters.
At the beginning of the meeting, Pelchat said, “all the outfitters walked to one side of the room, all the First Nations walked to the other side of the room.”
The atmosphere was tense. But Doug asked the outfitters to list all the things that mattered to them – abundant game, clean air, a healthy environment. Then he asked the First Nations if there was anything on the list they disagreed with. There wasn’t. “All of a sudden the outfitters and the First Nations realized they were partners,” Pelchat said. “This is what Doug could do and he did it time and time and time again.”
He would use his cartoons, too, to defuse situations. During meetings, he would draw cartoons of people who were getting overly worked up and show them to the room.
“They would realize just how silly they are… and the workshop would just turn around,” Pelchat remembered.
After leaving the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, Doug began working as a facilitator with First Nations across the Yukon, and particularly with three of the Northern Tutchone First Nations – Little Salmon/Carmacks, Selkirk and Nacho Nyak Dun.
This was after the Umbrella Final Agreement was signed, and he facilitated meetings and workshops designed to help First Nations understand what self-government agreements meant for them.
Mark Nelson, who worked with Doug for the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, recalled how Doug made a kind of report about self-government, all in cartoons.
“He basically told the story of where the First Nation people had been in their experience before the k’uch’an (white people) came,” Nelson said. “He really believed that stories are the essence of who we are and how we learn.”
Nelson said one of Doug’s gifts was being able to talk to and listen to everybody.
“He really believed in empowering the everyday citizen on the ground and not losing sight of them.”
Little Salmon/Carmacks, Selkirk and Nacho Nyak Dun First Nations recently closed their government offices in part to honour Doug’s passing.
Though the end of his father’s life was unexpected, Robin believes Doug never feared death.
By all accounts, this was a man who didn’t fear much. This was a man who once built an iceboat with skate blades fixed to the bottom and went shooting out across a frozen lake, so fast that he lost control and had to abandon ship. Just for fun.
“What he feared was a life of pain and not being able to do what he wanted to do,” Robin said. “His view of the world was that we’re here for a short period of time, and when we die we cease to exist. And you make the most of the time you have here. And that’s pretty much what he did.”
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