Territory loses a political cowboy

Before he became one of the longest-serving speakers in Yukon politics, Don Taylor was a cowboy.

Before he became one of the longest-serving speakers in Yukon politics, Don Taylor was a cowboy.

“The first time I met Don he was dressed completely like a cowboy and he gave me his card,” said long-time friend and fellow politician Ken McKinnon. “It said something like ‘Don Taylor, cowboy extraordinare, poet, picker, player, jack of all trades’- something like that. It was just an incredibly colourful business card that depicted Don to the T.

“He knew everybody and he’d do anything. He was a guy who was capable of doing anything and everything, all with a guitar on his back.

“He travelled most of the Yukon and was just the right fit for Watson Lake; a perfect fit for the people of Watson Lake that saw the potential in him and elected him. So there we were in ‘61, both young and single and first-time members of the territorial council and just got along famously from the first moment … and always will.”

Taylor passed away on Oct. 7 in Watson Lake after battling lung cancer for many years.

He served as the southeastern town’s representative for nearly a quarter century, uninterrupted, from 1961 to 1985. He was speaker of the legislative assembly from 1974 until his retirement in 1985.

In his later years, Taylor lived a more solitary life in a bush cabin at Stewart Lake, northeast of Watson Lake, where he communicated by radio telephone.

When Taylor periodically returned to town, he’d use the Internet to lob fiery criticisms at the Yukon Party government, dubbing himself a “citizen advocate.”

In one of his last communiques, dated Sept. 3, Taylor wrote that his doctors in Vancouver confirmed that his cancer was “well beyond any hope of treatment.”

But Taylor, who has been called an “eternal optimist” by friends, seemed unshaken by the news and instead spoke about hunkering down for another winter.

“At least now I know for sure,” he wrote. “Otherwise I feel pretty good and am in reasonable shape for my age.”

McKinnon insists that those who only knew Taylor in his later years, as a prolific letter-writer, were missing a lot about his old friend.

Not only did Taylor hitchhike up the Alaska Highway in 1949 – which was little more than a “cow trail” in those days – he quickly became one of those “quintessential Yukoners,” said McKinnon.

Coming from a “privileged” family outside Toronto, Taylor came to the Yukon looking for adventure and something new, like most who made the migration at that time.

He had little more than the clothes on his back and the rifle he brought with him, but it didn’t take long for Taylor to start dabbling in politics.

One of McKinnon’s fondest memories of his friend came from a trip they took to speak with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa.

“We finally convinced Mr. Chretien (who was a federal cabinet minister then) to bring the prime minister a proposal that we get involved in the administration of the Yukon through a quasi-cabinet called the executive committee,” said McKinnon.

“I remember we were partying in the Chateau Laurier after we had been given, really the agreement to formulize the executive committee – which was the true beginnings of responsible government in the Yukon … and (Taylor) got up at the very sophisticated bar in the Chateau Laurier and recited Robert Service’s The Parson’s Son. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

“It’s really the story of a privileged son of a parson that comes to the Yukon and kind of throws it all away, but really loves what he’s doing. I always thought that it was Don’s favourite poem; I always recognized why it was so important to him.”

McKinnon has a memento of Taylor’s efforts to nudge along the evolution of representative government in the Yukon. It’s an aged piece of legal-pad paper, which Taylor, when Speaker, drew up and taped to McKinnon’s desk in the assembly.

It reminded him that he was now a minister, not an executive committee member, and that he should only refer to the house as the legislative assembly, not the council.

“He was so absolutely sharp and smart and incredibly … just totally consumed by the cause of bringing responsible government to the territory,” said McKinnon.

And he really knew how to party, McKinnon added. But no matter how many years it’s been since the two friends sat in the house, those stories aren’t for public consumption, he said with a laugh.

“People would still be aghast at some of the things we did over the years,” he said.

Taylor was 79 years old, divorced twice and had no children.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at