Former commissioner faced challenges in changing times

These days former commissioner of Yukon Jim Smith lives a quiet life. He and his wife Dorothy live comfortably in their Alsek Road home, purchased…

These days former commissioner of Yukon Jim Smith lives a quiet life.

He and his wife Dorothy live comfortably in their Alsek Road home, purchased 47 years ago. Armchairs positioned by the front window give them a good view of nearby homes and schools.

Downstairs, the walls of Smith’s study are lined with books, mementos and photos, including one of Smith receiving the Order of Canada. These provide clues to the important role Smith once played in the territory, when he served as Yukon commissioner from 1966 to 1976.

Smith himself sums it up modestly.

“We faced the same challenges as you do in your household today. It never rains but it pours,” he smiles, leaning back in his desk chair.

In fact, Smith was running a pretty big “household.”

In those days, the commissioner’s role was similar to that of today’s premier.

He was the chief executive officer of the territory, running its day-to-day affairs and reporting to the federal minister of Northern Affairs.

“Every mortal thing the government did, in education, social welfare, tourism, mining, and so on, I dealt with it.”

It was a big job for a man whose formal training was as a butcher. But in the years before his appointment, Smith had built his skills in many ways.

He first came north in 1940 to work as a meat cutter in Atlin, but before he left, he was head of the Atlin Board of Trade.

After moving to Whitehorse in 1947, Smith worked for 20 years as the general manager of Tourist Services Limited, a firm dealing in food services and motel/hotel operations.

He served as president of the Whitehorse Board of Trade and as a city alderman; he also sat on the Yukon Territorial Council.

Once appointed as commissioner, Smith worked with two assistant commissioners; all territorial department heads reported to them. The three of them made up the executive committee and every Thursday morning they met to “hash out issues.”

“There was a never-ending list of crises,” Smith says. “No catastrophic events, but always lots to do. For example, new mining developments took up an awful lot of time.”

A number of key events took place during Smith’s tenure.

A new territorial government building was built on 2nd Avenue, the same one we use today.

Smith says Ottawa’s original idea was for a new federal building, but he managed to change their minds.

Similarly, there was a proposal to build a new post office, when Smith suggested instead that it was time for house-to-house mail delivery in Whitehorse.

He also managed to negotiate the completion of the Skagway Road with then-BC premier Dave Barrett and Alaska governor Bill Egan.

The three men were scheduled to hold a formal meeting to discuss the issue in Victoria, but during the two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver, the three men happened to meet and got the job done before the ferry hit land.

“My years as commissioner were full of episodes like that. We were dealing with good people and spontaneity was possible in decision-making.”

Smith’s list of accomplishments and landmark events goes on and on.

He, along with the Klondike Visitors Association, held the first Commissioner’s Ball in Dawson City.

He travelled with then-Northern Affairs Minister Jean Chretien to Australia to observe and learn from that country’s land claims experience.

He was part of the opening of the Anvil mine near Faro.

He even accompanied the Canadian hockey team to Moscow for the famous 1972 series.

Smith expresses deep gratitude to his many colleagues and to the federal ministers he worked for, especially Arthur Lang, and former prime minister Lester Pearson, who appointed him.

“The opportunity was heaven-sent. Of course there were bad days as well as good, but the personal satisfaction outweighed that.”

Smith’s time in office was an important period in Yukon history in yet another respect. The territory’s elected representatives were dissatisfied with the minimal amount of power and influence they wielded and were pushing for more.

Smith helped that transition begin by bringing two elected individuals onto the commissioner’s executive committee.

“It was the right time for change. The territory had grown and communications were so much better. The whole world was changing.

“After all, the commissioner’s powers were established when it took three months for a letter to travel between Dawson City and Ottawa.”

In the next installment of this series, we’ll hear from another noteworthy former commissioner, Doug Bell, who also played a key role as Yukon began to take more responsibility for governing itself.

This is the second 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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