Doug Bell recalls days as Yukon’s commissioner

By Elaine Schiman Yukon newspaper readers will recognize Doug Bell’s name from his weekly column Rambling in the Yukon News, and they’ll…

By Elaine Schiman

Yukon newspaper readers will recognize Doug Bell’s name from his weekly column Rambling in the Yukon News, and they’ll know that he has an anecdote for almost everything.

He also has some pretty good stories to tell about the jobs he held just before he began writing his column in 1986. Bell served in the Office of the Yukon Commissioner for almost nine years, beginning in 1977, first as deputy commissioner for two years, then as administrator for a year, and then as commissioner for his final six years.

Bell was the federal government’s top official in Yukon during one of the most significant transitions in the territory’s history: the final stages of the changeover to responsible government in Yukon.

After Bell took the job of deputy commissioner in 1977, he worked with three commissioners: first Art Pearson, then Frank Fingland and finally Ione Christensen.

During that time, the commissioner’s role was similar to that of premier today. In essence, the commissioner ran the territory’s affairs. But change had been coming for some time, as the territory’s elected representatives pushed for more decision-making powers.

A previous commissioner, Jim Smith, had begun the period of change when he brought two elected representatives onto his executive committee.

More were added during Art Pearson’s tenure. Then, in 1979, former Northern Affairs minister Jake Epp wrote the “Epp letter,” which instructed the Office of the Commissioner to relinquish some of its powers and establish responsible government in Yukon.

 “Once that happened, my attendance at executive committee meetings ended and my main job was to facilitate the transition,” says Bell.

“Administrative and legislative responsibilities changed almost overnight.” Bell was the first commissioner to swear in a fully elected Yukon government, led by Chris Pearson of the Yukon Progressive Conservative Party.

That transition also meant that Bell had the opportunity to carve out a new niche for himself as commissioner.

“I began to liaise with the Governor-General’s Office for advice on my role,” says Bell. “The Governor General at the time, Ed Schreyer, invited me to attend a World Scout Jamboree and while I was there, I took the opportunity to ask him if he’d consider inviting the territorial commissioners to the annual provincial lieutenant-governor conferences.

That was in July. The next October, Northwest Territories Commissioner John Parker and I both attended the lieutenant-governors’ conference. A new tradition had been established.”

Some elements of the job remained the same, says Bell. “The commissioner’s signature was still essential for legislation to become law, as it is today. My public relations role, which was always an important aspect of governing responsibilities, remained strong.

“I represented Yukon nationally and internationally, made countless formal and informal presentations and officially welcomed people from all walks of life to the territory.”

Bell did a cross-country tour of speaking engagements, telling people about Yukon. He also travelled to places such as California and Australia on behalf of the territory.

One visit to the University of Southern California revealed the high level of interest in Yukon that Bell often found. “A professor asked me to speak at his 10 a.m. class,” says Bell.

“The talk was scheduled to last for an hour or so, but other professors and students began joining us, and six hours later, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, our crowded sessions finally finished.”

Even though the territory now had an elected government to make legislation and other decisions, Bell says the federal government still regarded the commissioner as one of its main contacts in Yukon for discussion, advice and evaluation of events and projects related to Yukon.

Bell revitalized the commissioner’s awards for bravery and public service and he remembers well the first award he presented. “The recipient was Giovanni Castellarin of Dawson City, but he was so busy building his new hotel that he refused to attend the presentation.

“With his wife’s agreement and the RCMP’s help, we had him ‘arrested’ and brought to the Palace Grand to accept the award!”

Bell believes the role of commissioner is an important one. “At one lieutenant-governor’s conference, a constitutional expert compared the position to that of a fire extinguisher,” says Bell.

“It’s always there and is ready when needed. If the elected government falls, the commissioner holds the power to ensure funding keeps flowing and government services keep running, while constitutional matters are sorted out.”

In 1989, Bell received the Order of Canada for his work.

This is the third in a series of articles profiling the history and role of the Commissioner of Yukon. The series is a service provided by the Office of the Commissioner and Yukon government’s Executive Council Office. For more info, go to www.gov.yk.ca/commissioner.

Elaine Schiman is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse.

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