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History Hunter: Garth Graham, the anarchist who established the Yukon Archives

The Yukon Archives celebrated its 50th birthday on Dec. 10 in its modern facility located on the campus of Yukon University. There were behind-the-scenes tours. Food and a birthday cake were served, items of interest from the archives collection were laid out for examination in the reading room, and speeches were given. The event was well attended.
Garth Graham, who was instrumental in establishing the Yukon Archives, spoke at the 50th birthday celebration at the Archives, on Saturday, Dec. 10. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)

The Yukon Archives celebrated its 50th birthday on Dec. 10 in its modern facility located on the campus of Yukon University. There were behind-the-scenes tours. Food and a birthday cake were served, items of interest from the archives collection were laid out for examination in the reading room, and speeches were given. The event was well attended.

The highlight of the afternoon was a speech delivered by former head of library services Garth Graham. Graham was instrumental in establishing the Yukon Archives back in 1972. After introductory remarks by Julie Ourum, the president of the Friends of the Yukon Archives Society (FOYAS), the Minister of Highways and Public Works and Environment Nils Clarke (on behalf of the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Ranj Pillai) and current territorial archivist David Schlosser, Graham began his speech. He thanked the archives, FOYAS, and especially Kirk Cameron, for making his attendance possible, although he admitted it was disconcerting to discover that he, too, has become part of history by being one of the “last men standing.”

The Yukon was a different place when Graham first took on the position of head of library services in 1967. The population was a third of its current size, and there was a serious lack of specialized skills, and not much of a budget for acquiring the expertise. Hiring him as the regional librarian didn’t make a lot of sense, he reflected, and was “more likely a function of frugality on the part of [the Yukon government] and of a frontier survival habit of making do with what you have at hand. There I was, working in a society where there were more tasks that needed doing than people who could do them. And people were willing to off-load one of them onto the willing and then get out of their way.”

“If you said, ‘I can do that,’ the usual response was, ‘Thanks, go ahead.’ At the time I had enough youthful self-confidence not to question how unusual that was,” said Graham. He was hired almost immediately after graduating from library school and stepped into a position as one of the top librarians in the country, in one giant step. Prior to that, he had two years of experience working in the Hamilton Public Library, but he had never been in charge of one.

Graham first learned that he was going to create the Yukon Archives when he was summoned to the office of then commissioner, James Smith. Smith was one of the most fervent, and certainly most influential voices in establishing the archives. Smith engaged Willard Ireland, the provincial archivist for British Columbia, to advise on how to proceed. Ireland recommended that it be kept as a separate and relatively autonomous section of the library services branch. Graham worked closely with Ireland to set the foundation in place, first, by drafting the Yukon Archives Act, and then by overseeing the funding and construction of the first archives facility as an adjunct to the downtown library building.

The next step was to hire the first territorial archivist. Graham was lucky to recruit Brian Spears, who he described as an “innovative and pragmatic manager, with a talent for promoting and sustaining archives and records management, a flair for financial management… and for his collegial approach, jovial nature and concern for staff.” Spears put the archives on a good footing during his four years in the Yukon.

Graham remembered driving back to Dawson with Spears after a meeting in Clinton Creek to discuss acquiring the corporate records of the Cassiar Asbestos Company. They got caught in a blizzard, and the orange and black government vehicle slipped off the road on an icy corner, and was stuck in a snow bank. Things didn’t look good. It was getting on in the evening, the wind was blowing the drifting snow into drifts at -30C, and there was no traffic on the road. Graham was clad in a parka good to 60 below, but he “realized that [Spears’] winter clothes were better for Toronto than they were for the situation we faced. …My first thought was, oh damn, where am I going to find another archivist as good as this one.”

Graham described another unforgettable encounter. Alan Innes-Taylor, a former pilot, Mountie, riverboat purser and northern survival expert, was one of the fiercest protectors of Yukon history. It was Innes-Taylor who saved the government records that were abandoned in Dawson when the capital was moved to Whitehorse in 1953. These valuable records were kept locked in a dusty cage in the basement of the former territorial building at Third Avenue and Main Street, here in Whitehorse, along with the 1962 Dawson Festival records. The festival records were also kept under lock and key as they were, at the time, considered to be highly sensitive.

Graham, who had many fascinating conversations with Innes-Taylor in those dusty basement cages, was “deeply shocked” when Innes-Taylor took out a nail bent in half and used it to pick the lock on the supposedly secure cage holding the records of the failed festival.

He also reminisced about a trip that he and I took down Kusawa Lake in a 19-foot canoe many years ago, looking for archaeological remains. At a sandy bench overlooking the lower end of the lake, I pointed to obsidian flakes under a layer of volcanic ash in an exposed cutbank. Apparently, that was a turning point for Graham, that caused him to shift his point of view.

From that perch, he said he could look south up Kusawa Lake, and feel the presence of the person who had sat there, thousands of years before, chipping stone tools. “Just as archives let voices from the past speak,” he said, “so too did the obsidian flakes provide a voice from the past.”

Both Graham and Spears survived their stormy misadventure many years ago, and the Yukon Archives thrived. Graham moved on to become deputy minister of Heritage and Cultural Resources, establishing other important functions within the government, such as the historic sites, archaeology, palaeontology and museum services departments.

While Graham moved on to other enterprises around the world, the programs that he established so many years ago in the Yukon were the foundations upon which the current government heritage departments function.

Graham is a self-proclaimed anarchist. “Throughout my career, I have worked to create situations,” he said, “where people can define their own choices about what they want to be or do… To make the autonomy of the individual the central factor in social and political relationships is inherently anarchistic.” Archives, he said, provide a portal for discovering our history on our own terms. Since individual autonomy is inherently anarchistic, “the archives contains the history of authority’s rule, but also the capacity to interpret and thus challenge authority’s intentions after the fact.”

The archives are keeping our records sacred so that we can explore our past (and future) in an informed manner. Graham concluded by warning us: “To ensure that society in Yukon remains as open as possible, please don’t mess with [the] Yukon Archives.”

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at