If you govern the Yukon, spearhead Northern development and organize the North’s first Canada Games, it’s comforting to know the effort doesn’t go unnoticed.
The prestigious “officer class” of the Order of Canada has been awarded to Piers McDonald, former Yukon premier, Canada Games chair and current president of Northern Vision Development.
McDonald’s receipt of the country’s second-highest civilian honour was made public in a Canada Day release by Governor General Michaelle Jean.
The appointment recognizes McDonald’s extensive political service to the Yukon and credits his “leadership in the economic development of the North.”
In only 33 years since he first arrived in the territory, McDonald has propelled himself from miner to premier to entrepreneur.
“The experience (in the Yukon)… has been pretty rich; there’s a lot of potential storytelling material around the dinner table at night,” said McDonald, speaking from a cellphone in Haines, Alaska.
“It’s been quite an exciting first 30 years in the Yukon and I’m looking forward to the next 30 years,” he said.
McDonald came to the Yukon from Kingston, Ontario, in 1975 looking for a summer job to finance his education at Queen’s University.
He first found his start as a miner, working at the Elsa lead, zinc and silver mine just north of Mayo.
Within a few years, it was clear that his Queen’s University degrees in philosophy and politics would ultimately go unfinished.
“I got sidetracked and involved with the union movement in Elsa; I found myself on the difficult end of a strike in 1980 — and a new course was set,” he said.
Though he mined for only six years before becoming active in Yukon territorial politics, McDonald still carries the scars of his mining career.
He once suffered a 12-metre fall that would leave him with lifelong back problems.
“There were days in government where, literally, he could not get out of his chair,” said Trevor Harding, former minister of economic development under McDonald and the founder of Northern Vision Development.
It was at Elsa that McDonald’s devotion to the people of the North was truly solidified.
“He found a real sense of community at Elsa, and he felt persuaded to give back to that community — and that’s what he did,” said Harding.
McDonald entered politics in 1982, becoming minister of Education and of Community and Transport under then-NDP premier Tony Penikett.
Later, as NDP leader, he beat John Ostashek’s Yukon Party in 1996.
As a politician McDonald saw scores of social and economic changes, both at the territorial and national level, including his lifelong goal to see increased independence for the North.
“In many ways in the last 30 years there’s been a true political maturation amongst all three territories — from a protectorate to where northerners are now masters of their own future,” said McDonald.
“It’s involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But I’ve been fortunate to be close enough to it to see a lot of it happen.”
Extremely humble, McDonald is reluctant to take credit for anything.
In an interview with his hometown’s newspaper the Kingston Whig-Standard, he insisted receiving the Order of Canada was more a credit to the North than to himself.
However, McDonald’s contemporaries cite how critical his leadership has been in pulling together many of the main Yukon initiatives of the past 15 years.
“Yukon College, the Yukon Arts Centre, the education act — these things wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the way that Piers was able to keep his eye on the ball and motivate other people to move toward common objectives,” said Ken Bolton, former NDP communications director.
“He was capable of absorbing a hell of a lot of detail but never losing sight of the big picture. What made him a good team leader is that he could always be on top of things, but without being a micromanager.”
“Whether he’s in politics or not, he’s conducted himself in a very honourable fashion with a lot of integrity — I have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” said Todd Hardy, current leader of the Yukon NDP.
“Focus sums it up really well. He’s a very, very hard worker who leads by example in that regard,” said Bolton.
Nevertheless, McDonald’s premiership would be plagued by the closure of the Yukon’s sole hardrock mine, due to falling world metal prices, and a mass exodus of almost 10 per cent of the Yukon’s population.
In 2000, the NDP was beaten by Pat Duncan’s Liberals. McDonald even lost his own McIntyre-Takhini riding.
McDonald resigned from politics, and focused on Northern Vision Development and planning the 2007 Canada Winter Games. He served as president of the Host Society.
“It was very frustrating for us sometimes, because he was our president at Northern Vision and we were growing too. But he was doing 30 to 40 hours a week volunteer for the Games — there were days when it was driving me bananas to try and get ahold of him,” said Harding.
Through Northern Vision, McDonald and Harding raised more than $20 million for capital development in the North. Their main goal is diversification.
“We talked a lot about raising investment beyond just rocks in the ground when we were in government — and with Northern Vision we’d thought we’d actually try and put our actions where our mouths were in the private sector,” said Harding.
“The title of his business sort of says it all; he really does have vision. He’s able to take the long-term view and work towards things that are very complex and put together teams of very disparate people and get them working together in harness,” said Bolton.
McDonald will receive his award at a ceremony in Ottawa along with 25 fellow officer-class appointees, including former US ambassador Frank McKenna, former Guess Who and BTO guitarist Randy Bachman and CBC broadcaster Peter Mansbridge.
“I’ll be doing a bit of star gazing when the time comes; I certainly have a lot of BTO (albums),” said McDonald.
Only three Yukoners have become officers of the Order of Canada since the award’s inception in 1967.
The first was former commissioner James Smith in 1976, followed by businessman Rolf Hougen in 1987 and former Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin in 2003.
There are currently 1,006 living officers of the Order of Canada.