The first meeting for what became the Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA) took place March 12, 1977 at the MacBride Museum. Representatives from many Yukon communities and from many disciplines attended the meeting. The society was formally constituted a few months later. (Kathy Jones-Gates/Yukon News)

Celebrating 40 years of celebrating Yukon’s history

This year the Yukon Historical and Museums Association marks a major milestone

Michael Gates | History Hunter

This year the YHMA, or Yukon Historical and Museums Association, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

There is a story about how the society got its name. At the founding meeting, which took place March 12, 1977, Peggy Crook, the chair of the gathering stated that the organizing committee had come up with the name Yukon Museums and Historical Association, or YMHA. Flo Whyard quickly pointed out that the YMHA was the Yukon Mental Health Association, so they switched the second and third words in the name to ensure that there would be no confusion between the two organizations.

Looking now at the photographs of the organizing group, I see that many of them have passed away during the intervening 40 years. There is Flo Whyard, a true champion of Yukon history, especially of George and Martha Black.

In the photo is Al Wright, author of Prelude to Bonanza, and a great inspiration for my own dream of becoming a writer. While still working in Ottawa, I learned that he was visiting the city, so I tracked him down and asked him to autograph my copy of his newly minted book. We got together, and when he offered me a glass of whisky. I accepted without protest my first and only drink of the golden liquid.

There is Father Henri Huijbers, whom I never met. But in 1977, my truck became mired in a bog a few miles off the road near Burwash Landing, and a couple of young fellows who were working for him offered to help me out. They used his truck and got stuck too, so I hitchhiked to Destruction Bay and Mike Williams came to pull me out with his tow truck. I later sent Father Huijbers a donation for any inconvenience it caused him.

There is Iris Warner, a treasure trove of Yukon history, who never failed to share that knowledge — and her enthusiasm.

I spoke to Valerie Graham a couple of days ago about her involvement with YHMA. Her eyes lit up when she thought back to the many field trips and gatherings that were held in various Yukon communities. She remembered a camping weekend at Champagne — very unstructured event, but memorable. A weekend field trip to Elsa and Keno City in 1980 may have been the high point in the era of such outings, and one that my wife Kathy and I, like Valerie, remember with fondness.

YHMA had its first conference in October of 1978, and brought together 150 people to hear historians Roy Minter and Al Wright, anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, and executive director of Heritage Canada, R.A.J. Phillips. I recall the projectionist fainted at one session and shared with the audience the fact that she was pregnant — before she had told her husband! Those who had travelled to Whitehorse from Dawson to attend, like me, had to drive back to the Klondike in a blinding snowstorm, arriving home at 2 a.m.

I was not at the founding meeting of YHMA, but was quickly signed up as a member of the society. Not long after that, I was enlisted as one of the directors, which prompted numerous trips to Whitehorse to attend board meetings. When I suggested that they hold a meeting in Dawson City, the other board members protested that it was too far to drive. The fact that I had to make the trip regularly to attend the meetings seemed to be lost to them.

At a spring meeting of 1979, I proposed that the conference be held in Dawson City on the Labour Day weekend. “That is so far to go,” griped one of the people at the meeting, but I persevered, and it was agreed.

As it turned out, plenty of people from Whitehorse attended. On May 3, Dawson was inundated by a dreadful flood, and was still recovering at the beginning of September, but we pulled it off. The featured event, the very first screening of a selection of silent movies dug out of permafrost the year before, filled the Palace Grand Theatre and even appeared on the B.C. evening news.

The house I lived in had floated off its foundation during the flood, and I had just moved back in four months later when the conference took place. The plumbing worked, but the furnace didn’t. Nevertheless, I invited many of the attendees from Whitehorse to crash there. Everybody brought foamies and sleeping bags, and we formed a spontaneous kazoo band and played songs till the late hours. Nobody complained, and I don’t remember anybody being too cold either.

These were some of the many personal memories that have made my affiliation with YHMA enjoyable. Of course, there was the organizing of the conferences, workshops, publications and the advocacy role. One milestone was the restoration of Donnenworth House,in Lepage Park, which has long served as the headquarters for the association.

In more recent years, the YHMA was involved in organizing an annual conference of the Canadian Museums Association here in Whitehorse. There was the World War I conference in 2016, and the Joe Boyle birthday party that we celebrated just a few weeks ago that attest to the durability and continuing purpose of the organization.

On November 21, 15 YHMA members attended a tribute at the Yukon Legislature. Among those in attendance were presidents of the society, past and present, board members, past and present, two executive directors (past and present) and four who have been members since the organization was founded 40 years ago.

Yukon’s Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie Dendys rose to acknowledge YHMA’s mission to inspire and share a passion for Yukon heritage, and its work to provide support for education, networking, advocacy, partnerships and preservation of our past.

MLA Geraldine Van Bibber also rose to acknowledge YHMA’s prolific track record, including walking tours, flea markets, and the Yukon/Stikline regional heritage fairs. “A small group realized that there was a need to capture, preserve and find our local history,” she said, “so that future generations would know what happened within our territory…. I would like to congratulate … the Yukon Historic and Museums Association on 40 years of promoting heritage and history in Yukon. I believe our history is in good hands.”

Let’s hope that the next 40 years will be as productive and memorable as the last 40 were.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at

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