First Yukon premier remembered as political pioneer

Yukon's first premier has died. Chris Pearson, 82, will be remembered as a pioneer of Yukon politics and a mentor to many. Originally from Alberta, Pearson moved to Yukon in 1957, where he worked for the government.

Yukon’s first premier has died.

Chris Pearson, 82, will be remembered as a pioneer of Yukon politics and a mentor to many.

Originally from Alberta, Pearson moved to Yukon in 1957, where he worked for the government and dedicated himself to volunteer work with the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce as well as various boards and sports organizations.

He was elected in 1978 as Yukon’s majority leader with the Yukon Territorial Progressive Conservative Party.

But at the time ultimate power lay not with the elected territorial officials but with a federally appointed commissioner.

In 1979, Pearson famously asked then Indian Affairs Minister Jake Epp to implement responsible government, meaning a fully elected executive committee responsible for all aspects of the administration.

The resulting letter penned to Commissioner Ione Christensen, the Epp Letter, changed the face of Yukon politics forever.

It also allowed Pearson to assume the title of premier, the first to do so in Yukon’s history.

“He was really a pioneer for Yukon in terms of getting us to evolve from where we were as a sort of colony, as a territory of the federal government, and got us on the path towards really the success that we have today,” said Premier Darrell Pasloski in an interview this week.

Christensen remembers Pearson coming to her when she was the mayor of Whitehorse, looking for advice as to whether or not he should get involved in politics, she said.

“I thought it was a good idea, because he was very involved in community things.”

The advice must have been good, as many now remember Pearson as a great political teacher.

Jim Smith, who served as commissioner from 1966 to 1976, said that he learned much about bureaucracy from Pearson.

“He became my mentor on the movement of paperwork and the function of government and how the thing operated. And he carried on in that capacity for a long time, and it was very helpful to me.”

David Morrison, president of Yukon Energy, credits both Pearson and Smith for being mentors to a young generation of Yukoners, which included himself.

Morrison started working for Pearson at about age 20, when Pearson was a secretary to the legislature, he said.

“There was a number of us, all young Yukon kids, who had finished high school and were in the middle of our university days who all worked for Chris when Jim Smith was the commissioner,” said Morrison.

“He never treated us like we were young kids, even though we were in those days. He treated us like valuable employees.”

Pearson’s political contributions to the Yukon were pivotal, he said.

“The work that Chris and Jim Smith and others did to lay the foundation for what we have as a modern-day government – I don’t think people could really describe its total impact or how profound the work was.

“What I know today, and how I do my job today, I give Chris a lot of the credit for that.”

Gordon Steele, longtime principal secretary for the Yukon Party, worked with Pearson in many capacities over the years, he said.

“He was a great leader, really dedicated to Yukon. We’re lucky and fortunate to have a leader at that time, in that transitional period from the consensus-style government to the political party system.”

Pearson served as premier until he left Yukon politics in 1985. He ended his career as a diplomat, serving in the Canadian Consulate in Dallas, Texas.

At the time of his death he lived in Calytor Lake, Virginia, with his second wife, Nelda Pearson.

Yukon’s flags are at half mast in Pearson’s honour.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at