Newly acclaimed mayor John Steins’ workroom is a well-used space of a man with a lot on the go.
Shelves of books dominate the north wall, while art supplies and hand tools cover the tables that run the length of the south and west walls of the third-floor room in his 8th-Avenue home.
In the middle of the room is a hand-operated etching press and in the east, a desk concealed by an impressive amount of computer equipment.
“Last year, I was working on the Virtual Museum of Canada web project plus my own artwork,” says Steins, leaning back in a leather captain’s chair.
“I’m always busy. My days are really full.”
Steins, says he expects to get even busier since he was acclaimed mayor of Dawson City last week.
“That’s the big problem with what’s happened,” says Steins, chuckling, “now I have to be involved… before, I was hiding away in my turret up here and people didn’t even know what I do.”
The confusion is understandable.
Steins says he has had “a million jobs” since arriving in the Yukon in 1974, including artist, carpenter, musician and roulette croupier.
However, for the past two years Steins has been best known as the moderator of the Dawson City forum, a website he designed to encourage community dialogue after the territorial government took control of Dawson City in April 2004.
The forum served its purpose, but Steins heard from people who felt it was only a place for malcontents.
“(People) gave me the raspberry over it,” says Steins. “No one likes complainers but, on the other hand, people need to get things off their chest.”
Jorn Meier has known Steins for “a lot of years.”
The forum is a positive step for Dawson City, he says.
“The forum has helped make city politics more open than they ever have been before,” says Meier.
Steins’ website work helped him spearhead the Dawson City Citizens Action Committee — an advocacy group that pressured the Yukon to hold municipal elections in Dawson.
Meier says Steins’ influence with the committee was a major factor in the restoration of democracy to the Klondike.
“He was definitely a driving force,” says Meier. “The community has to thank him, and others, for getting our democracy back. It came a little late, but it came and part of it was the pressure he put the government under.”
Fighting against perceived injustices is nothing new for Steins.
He made international news in 2003 when prints of his Axis of Weasels linocuts — a parody of the US army’s Iraq’s Most Wanted playing cards — attracted the attention of eBay censors and the ire of several US citizens.
The less-than-flattering prints depicted members of President Bush’s administration and were banned from eBay.
Steins says he was only doing his job as an artist to expose what he felt was an unjust action.
“I was upset about the attack on Iraq,” says Steins. “It made me realize that someone in the middle of nowhere could have an impact. Thanks to the internet I was able to reach out.”
Steins activist roots in Dawson City go even deeper.
In 1978, he worked at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s with Gary Parker who is now the executive director of the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture.
Parker and Steins took action when they objected to the Klondike Visitors Association’s interpretation of labour standards on how staff members were paid for training.
“That was the particular issue,” says Parker, “but (it led) to a discussion with the (visitors association) board about how Gertie’s staff were being treated.”
Steins smiles when he recalls marching into a visitors association board meeting before his shift at the gambling tables.
“They were quite shocked when this group walked in with their bow ties and made their demands known,” says Steins.
Parker says he was the lead mouthpiece, but Steins played a big part in forcing the Klondike Visitors Association to treat its summer staff more professionally, he adds
Steins is, apparently, comfortable in that role, he says.
“He was very strongly standing up for individual rights,” says Parker.
“His belief in the democratic process and the voice of the people hasn’t changed.”
But, now that he’s mayor, Steins has gone from fighting the man to being the man.
“I’m kind of a contradiction,” says Steins. “I don’t really trust government and now here I am part of it. I do see the irony… (but) I don’t think you can avoid it. I guess that’s how people get into politics. They perceive a wrong, they perceive an injustice and they perceive something that they think they can fix.”
Steins admits he’s upset with how Dawson has been treated the past two years and says he sees a chance to lead the community in a better direction.
“I’ve been running off at the mouth for the last three years going democracy this, democracy that,” says Steins. “When push comes to shove you have to put your money where your mouth is.”
Karen Dubois, a born and raised Dawsonsite, first met Steins in the summer of 1976.
The feisty Steins has never had a problem voicing his opinions, she says.
“He’s one of those people who can say things that other people couldn’t get away with,” says Dubois.
“He has a real ability to speak his mind and not offend people. He’s so outspoken and it will be interesting to see if you can be that outspoken when you’re mayor.”
True, says Steins, conceding he’ll have to work to ensure he doesn’t rub too many people the wrong way.
“I have to hone my listening skills some more and try to put my ego on the backburner,” says Steins.
“I have to wrap my head around that once you accept the oath of office you are representing everyone in town. I have to be sensitive to that. Even those people that don’t like me.”
Steins also plans to overcome his dislike for meetings to be effective in his new post.
“I’m not a big fan of meetings,” says Steins as a grin spreads across his face, “but (council) meetings are good because the cause is greater than my dislike.”
Steins is a visionary, a “concept person,” and it’s not clear whether routine municipal council matters can hold his interest, said Dubois, who has attended many meetings with him as members on the Dawson City Music Festival and the Dawson City Arts Society boards
“I remember Peter Jenkins saying one time that everyone thinks being on city council is glorified,” says Dubois as she laughs into her coffee mug.
“But all you do is sit around and talk about dogs, you talk about roads — it’s not that exciting.
“The whole thing of taking on an undemocratic government, that’s incredibly exciting and something to be involved in. But if it gets mundane, I don’t know if John will be able to stay interested in it,” adds Dubois, with a grin.
That’s crossed Meier’s mind, too.
“When the first people talked to him about running for mayor… I think that was his biggest concern. ‘What if I lose interest?’” says Meier.
“To his credit, he was not sure if he could carry the torch for three years.”
But his commitment to municipal issues proved he’s up to the task, adds Meier.
“I expect great things from him,” he says.
As he sits in his third-floor office, Steins looks both humbled and content.
“I still have time to back out. I haven’t accepted the oath yet,” he says, smiling.
“Seriously, I love the community. I don’t want to sound messianic, but I feel this is a new start, an exciting new leaf being turned… Perhaps there is a paradigm shift in the town where the new blood is going to have a bigger influence in the future of this town.”