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History Hunter: When Governor-General Byng came to town…

There have been many governors-general who have visited the Yukon since its creation as a political entity June 13, 1898. None was more heartily received by Yukoners than Julian Byng, Baron Byng of Vimy.
When the car bogged down between May and Keno City, the governor-general rolled up his sleeves and lent a hand. Gold commissioner George P. Mackenzie is to the left. (Courtesy/Yukon Archives, Finnie family fonds)

There have been many governors-general who have visited the Yukon since its creation as a political entity June 13, 1898. None was more heartily received by Yukoners than Julian Byng, Baron Byng of Vimy.

It was Byng, who with General Arthur Currie, engineered the Canadians’ capture of the German stronghold at Vimy Ridge in France in April of 1917. Both the British and the French had failed to take the German position with a great number of casualties, but the Canadians successfully captured the position in a matter of hours. Consequently, Byng was widely known by and popular with Canadians when he was appointed the twelfth governor-general in 1921.

He traveled widely across Canada during his term as governor-general, and it was with great anticipation that Yukoners received his vice-regal visit in August of 1922.

“He dislikes pomp and parade,” stated the Dawson Daily News prior to his visit, “and says that he prefers little formality and wants to meet the people as they are.” Great War veterans were advised in advance to meet him upon his arrival, wearing civilian apparel and service buttons or regimental badges only, but no uniforms or medals.

Byng arrived at the head of Miles Canyon at 4:00 p.m. on July 31, from where he was whisked into the village of Whitehorse. After giving a short speech at the soldier’s memorial, in front of the public library, he was given a brief tour of the library, Mounted Police barracks and school. He, his wife, and his entourage boarded the Steamer Whitehorse at 8:00 p.m. for the downriver voyage to the Yukon capital, Dawson City.

Just before the Whitehorse reached Dawson, it was met by a small launch with a greeting party of prominent dignitaries, including the gold commissioner, George Paton Mackenzie, and recently elected Member of Parliament George Black, who had just arrived back in Dawson after the summer recess of Parliament.

They proceeded together into Dawson where the entire population of the community had come out to greet the vice-regal party. School children from the public and Catholic schools, members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, in full regalia, and Great War veterans in their civvies, all lined up to greet their excellencies.

The town was decked out with “flags, evergreens and other tokens of enthusiasm,” as the party proceeded down Front Street to the commissioner’s residence (which had been unoccupied since 1916), where they stayed while in Dawson.

The itinerary was full of activity that hardly gave Lord and Lady Byng a chance to rest. First, they were escorted to Minto Park, where Lord Byng presented the battle flags of the Second Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, a unit consisting heavily of Yukoners, to Gold Commissioner Mackenzie, to be deposited behind the Speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber.

A reception party of local dignitaries awaited the arrival of Governor-General Byng in Dawson in August of 1922. From left to right: Former M.P., Dr. Alfred Thompson, George Black, M.P., Martha Black, gold commissioner George P. Mackenzie, Capt. Telford of the Mounted Police, Thora Mackenzie, Justice Macauley, and Charles R. Settlemier (of the Dawson Daily News). (Courtesy/Yukon Archives, Finnie family fonds)

After a quick change into formal evening attire, complete with all the trappings of his position, Lord and Lady Byng were taken to the Arctic Brotherhood Hall for an exchange of formal greetings, followed by introductions and hand shaking with many Yukoners.

The formalities dispensed with, his excellency signaled that dancing should commence, and escorted Mrs. Mackenzie onto the floor for the first turn. The Byngs, and other members of their party joined in the dancing for an hour or so before leaving, while the community continued the festivities into the early morning hours.

The vice-regal party was taken into the goldfields the following day for a tour to Bonanza and Bear Creeks, before the baron boarded a steamer at midnight for the upriver journey to Mayo and the silver mines of Keno City. Lady Byng remained in Dawson, where she toured the adjacent country in the following days, attended social functions, and received guests, the most notable being Chief Isaac, from Moosehide, who presented her with several handcrafted gifts.

Byng’s arrival in Mayo a day ahead of time caught the citizens off guard, but they scrambled to plant a flagpole and raise the Union Jack before the steamer Nasutlin docked in front of town. The governor-general mingled with the waiting crowd, and talked to people informally.

The following day, Byng, M.P. George Black and others, mounted their vehicles and departed for the silver mines at Keno Hill. The governor-general mixed easily with everyone he met, and, when his automobile became bogged down in a boggy patch near Keno City, he rolled up his sleeves and pitched in to help extract the wheels from the greasy mud.

Byng toured the mines, twice descending into the depths for a hands-on exploration of the mine workings. That evening, before retiring to his bunk in the mining camp, he made a point of talking to each and every miner. Returning to Mayo, he was feted by the residents in the Pioneer Hall, where he was made an honorary member of the Mayo Pioneer lodge. Miners from every creek in the district descended upon Mayo for the occasion.

Returning to the mouth of the Stewart River aboard the Nasutlin to meet his wife and the rest of his entourage from Dawson, he shared with George Black his observations of the people he had met during his visit in the north.

“You have no class distinctions here,” he said. “People who behave themselves are all on an equality and treated with respect. You have no suffering from poverty. Deserving people are helped by their fellows, and if the task is too great, the government assists them. There is no unemployment. Your local legislative makes laws in all local affairs in accordance with the wishes of the majority, and everybody works, must work to exist. That seems to me almost an ideal condition and a situation I have never found anywhere else.”

Lady Byng left Dawson at 1:30 p.m. on August 9 for the rendezvous with her husband at Stewart, and the return voyage to Whitehorse and beyond. A week later, the vice-regals sent telegrams to Gold Commissioner and Mrs. Mackenzie, thanking them and all the other Yukoners for their hospitality. Lord Byng adds “I have the Yukon most thoroughly at heart and its development will now be a matter of the greatest interest to me and one in which I hope to be of assistance.” I wonder if he was ever able to fulfill that promise.

There is a gap in the newspapers regarding their return visit to Whitehorse, and Dawson seemed to lose interest in the governor general after he left the northern end of the territory.

Unlike today, where travel from Ottawa to the Yukon can be accomplished in a matter of hours, the trip to and from the Yukon, and the time spent in the territory represented almost a month’s time out of the governor-general’s busy year. That was quite a commitment for him to make to visit one of the remotest regions of the country.

Michael Gates is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at