Hello and Happy New Year to you all. My first official function as Yukon’s Story Laureate was to participate in this year’s Commissioner’s Levee. It was an affair with a difference. Due to COVID-19, the event was conducted online, rather than in person, but it maintained a tradition that extends back more than a century.
In the early days after the gold rush, Dawson City was the social and economic centre of the Yukon; it was also the capital. Every year, during the coldest, darkest days of winter, there was a masquerade ball in Dawson on New Year’s Eve, and open houses the following day. The most magnificent of these open houses was the Commissioner’s Levee, which was held in the home of the Yukon’s top administrator.
The residence, which was known as Government House back then, was the largest, most opulent home in the territory, and amply suited to receive large numbers of visitors. In 1904, Commissioner Frederick Congdon and his wife threw open the doors to their residence to welcome guests between one and two o’clock in the afternoon. Commissioner William McInnes did the same in 1906, and followed a pattern that continues with some variation to the present day.
The event was more formal then than it is now. Upon entering, guests were ushered into the reception room, to the left of the front vestibule. It was here that they were introduced to the receiving party, which consisted of the commissioner and his wife, as well as other senior government officials. From there, people moved into the adjoining drawing room, or across the grand entrance hall to the dining room, where refreshments were served by society matrons.
Government House was gutted by fire Christmas Day, 1906, and it wasn’t until 1909 that Commissioner Henderson threw the doors open once again on New Year’s Day. Commissioner George Black and his wife Martha, were probably the most well-known tenants of Government House. In 1914, they greeted over 200 guests of every political and social stripe in the stately mansion. The Blacks were well known for the egalitarian nature of such social events during their tenure.
Typical of the event protocol, the receiving line in 1914 included the commissioner and his wife, Judge John Black, and Superintendent Moodie of the Royal North West Mounted Police. Society ladies assisted in serving refreshments and entertaining guests.
The levee was repeated the following year, from three to five o’clock p.m., but World War I subsequently intervened, and Government House was shut down in 1916, never to be occupied by any successor to the Blacks. Through various changes of title, the senior government official continued the tradition in the form of an open house at his home on New Year’s Day, assuming that the event wasn’t cancelled due to his absence, or cold weather.
The capital was moved to Whitehorse in 1953, and Commissioner Fred Collins and his wife, Sybil renewed the levee when they welcomed 150 guests into their home, New Year’s Day, 1956. There was nothing ostentatious about the commissioner’s Whitehorse residence which, unlike the grand mansion of the early days of Dawson City, was a typical two-storey home, located at the head of a small side street in Riverdale.
The new residence was not well suited to receiving the large number of guests who attended the levee. Bob Cameron, whose father served as commissioner from 1965 to 1966, remembered that entertaining was the bane of his mother’s existence: “It had a tiny little kitchen and to get to the kitchen you had to go through most of the house one way, or through the dining room the other way.”
As many as 300 people attended the levees in the confines of the much smaller residence during this time. Ione Christensen, long-time resident and former Yukon Commissioner (1979) remembered those early days:
“The early levees I attended were … very crowded… You must remember that Whitehorse was still a very newly minted capital and now being the host to the Commissioner’s Levee everyone wanted to be there! We also had much colder winters back then and coats and boots were piled high in every available room in the Commissioner’s home. There was hardly room to move, and remember this was still a time when people were smoking and it was/is a small house for such an event, but it was a must go event each and every year! It was not enjoyable, but if you were anybody you had to be there! Whitehorse was not to be outdone by Dawson; we were now the capital and [had to] live up to that reputation! Feelings about that move of the capital from Dawson to Whitehorse were still running high.”
In 1979, Commissioner Doug Bell and his wife Pearl moved the venue to the Klondike Inn from two to six o’clock in the afternoon. Since then, the levee has been held in public venues, including the Yukon Government Administration Building, the Elijah Smith Building, the Westmark Hotel, and most recently, the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.
In 1974, Commissioner Jim Smith gave out the first Commissioner’s Awards at a levee, a tradition of celebration that has continued ever since. More recently, the levee has become an event that celebrates Yukoners and their accomplishments for community service, bravery and scholastic achievement.
The Order of Yukon was added to the honours handed out on New Year’s Day, after the Order of Yukon Act was passed in 2018. The first such honours were awarded last year, and an additional 10 proud Yukoners were added to the roll this year. Congratulations to all of them for their lasting contributions to the territory.
The levee is a time when we as Yukoners put our differences aside and come together in a spirit of collegiality to celebrate our accomplishments. One editorial from the 1980s noted, “the Commissioner’s Levee truly captures the season, with a wide cross-section of people coming together to start the year anew. It is an occasion to resume public life, after the intimacy of family and friends over the holidays, in a spirit of glee and goodwill, when those things that divide Yukoners appear much less than that which has brought them together here.”
Today, the levee is a time to showcase Yukon talent, recognize our accomplishments and good deeds, and look forward to the year ahead. But one mother took it a step further. She had convinced her child, who was born on New Year’s Day, that the levee was her youngster’s birthday party, and then one year, the levee was deferred to later in the month. That was a big oops.
So, my best wishes to you all in 2021. Stay healthy, stay safe, and may we all get together in person again next year to celebrate the best of who we are.
Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. Michael is the Yukon’s Story Laureate.