Yukoner Flo Whyard: 1917 to 2012

As a journalist, author and politician, Flo Whyard, who died Sunday at 95, left her stamp on the Yukon.

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As a journalist, author and politician, Flo Whyard, who died Sunday at 95, left her stamp on the Yukon.

“I don’t think you could count on your fingers all of the organizations she was instrumental in,” said her son, Bill, in an interview this week.

Whyard and her husband, Jim, arrived in Whitehorse in 1954. The daughter of a newspaperman, she started writing for the Whitehorse Star and eventually became its editor.

While at the Star, Whyard also fed news to the fledgling CBC News service.

She went into territorial politics in 1974 and served one term as the MLA for Whitehorse West. In 1981, she became the mayor of Whitehorse.

Later she wrote more than half a dozen books on northern subjects. She republished Martha Black’s autobiography and added a new foreword. Black represented the Yukon as Canada’s second female MP from 1935 to 1940.

The two women had much in common. Both were headstrong, opinionated and displayed a conservative political tilt.

But Whyard’s politics didn’t prevent her from becoming friends with Ione Christensen, the Yukon’s former Liberal senator, and Audrey McLaughlin, the territory’s NDP MP.

“She was not conciliatory,” said Christensen. “It was her opinion, and you had to respect that.”

Whyard helped found the Yukon Transportation Museum.

She also helped lead a campaign to save Whitehorse’s Log Church at a time when the Anglican executive “thought it should be firewood,” recalls Ken Snider, Dawson City’s retired Anglican priest.

He counted himself lucky to be on her side.

“She was aggressive and articulate,” he said.

Joyce Hayden devoted a chapter to Whyard in her book, Yukon’s Women of Power: Political Pioneers in a Northern Canadian Colony. “Always up front, willing to take risks, and willing to back up her blunt words with action, she has struck fear in the hearts of critics and opponents alike,” Hayden wrote.

“Yet her many friends, as well as the people who worked for and with her, remember her as humorous, honest and caring.”

Whyard became the territory’s Health minister in 1974, before the territory had responsible government and party politics.

Although the commissioner now plays a ceremonial role, at that time the Ottawa-appointed functionary wielded true power and presided over a territorial council that was a mixture of elected politicians and appointed officials.

The council met in a small, smoke-filled room in the old federal building.

“I nearly suffocated in that little room,” Whyard later recalled to Hayden. “I finally got them to open a window. Some time later, we learned that when the sheriff’s office window and our window were both open, they could hear every darn word we said.”

Whyard came to see politics as a thankless job. “So many times you don’t get credit for anything you do,” she told Hayden.

“The first year you thresh out the plan, and then you’ve got to get the approval of cabinet, get the money put into the budget, get it organized and shepherd it through the civil service. By then you’re gone, and someone else gets to cut the ribbon.”

With a frustration that many of her predecessors likely shared, Whyard noted it was far easier to secure money for road-building equipment than to support the payroll for nurses and doctors.

She said she fought to expand the health budget through a deal to draw down services from the federal government, only to have the deal nixed by the Yukon Native Brotherhood shortly before the signing ceremony.

Whyard won more money to house the elderly on the condition the tenants were charged for the first time. She saw it as a victory, others didn’t.

“Everybody hated me for it. Suddenly they had to pay something,” she told Hayden.

“There was one old buzzard in Macaulay Lodge who, we knew, had $80,000 in cash in his local bank account, and he had never paid a cent towards his lodging. He was such an old stinker, he would walk into the dining room and bang on the table saying: ‘I want service here, I’m paying for service.’”

Yukon Senator Dan Lang remembers Whyard as “very well spoken, very kind and a very forceful personality.” He started his career as a young man sitting on the territorial council with her.

Before Whyard became a journalist, she wanted to be a fighter pilot. When the Second World War broke out, Whyard, a licensed pilot, tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but she was told women needn’t apply.

“I think that infuriated her,” said her son, Bill.

So she joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service instead, serving as a public relations officer and parlaying some of her assignments into articles for publications such as Canadian Geographic.

She considered herself to be above all a writer. Among her earliest memories is the clatter of her father banging away on his typewriter.

Christensen asked Whyard to edit her own writing, knowing it would receive a thorough parsing. “If I took anything to her, out came the red pencil,” said Christensen.

The Yukon’s long-time Conservative MP, Erik Nielsen, also put his trust in Whyard’s skill with words, allowing her to write some of his speeches, according to her son, Bill.

Whyard eventually succeeded in having a Canadian icebreaker named after Black – a fitting tribute to another woman who cut her own path. And when Whyard attended the vessel’s christening ceremony to smash a champagne bottle over the hull, she dressed the part, wearing her gold rush costume.

Whyard received the Order of Canada, among other honours.

She got her bachelor of arts from the University of Western Ontario in 1938 and four decades later, at age 62, she received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the institution.

The Yukon’s legislative press gallery was recently named after her.

Whyard spent her last few years at Copper Ridge Place. She is survived by her son Bill, daughter Judy, and six grandchildren.

A service will be held on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

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