Yukonomist: Doug Bell, A Life Lived

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

It could have been a scene out of a 1940s movie: the tongue-tied young airman goes on a double date and falls head over heels for the prairie girl.

If he had been born a year or two earlier, Doug Bell probably would have ended up flying missions over Germany. Had he survived, who knows where the post-war world would have taken him and Pearl.

Instead, after the war, he parlayed his training as a gunner and radio operator to get a job as a government radio operator at wilderness airfields at Beatton River and Fort Nelson in British Columbia. Canada was taking over the Northwest Staging Route airfields that had ferried so many planes to Russia and Alaska during the war. Repurposing that network for the Cold War and civilian air travel in the North would require a lot of radio operators.

Doug kept moving up the ladder and, along with Pearl, farther up the highway. By the time he reached Whitehorse, he managed telecommunications in the territory for the federal government.

It was in Whitehorse that he transitioned to making the message rather than transmitting it. He spent two years as an Alderman, as they were then known, on City Council before being appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Yukon in 1977.

Those were the days when the Commissioner ran the territory like a colonial governor. Doug was signing up for a busy job with heavy responsibilities. What he didn’t know was that a period of enormous change was coming.

In 1979, the new Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa sent the so-called Epp letter, establishing the democratic province-like Yukon government we have today. When Doug was appointed Commissioner in 1980, he became the first Commissioner to go through an election under the new system and, like a Lieutenant Governor in a province, swear in an elected premier and government.

And after three years of Chris Pearson and the Progressive Conservatives, he presided over the 1985 electoral transition to Tony Penikett and the NDP.

The days of being tongue-tied were over. He practised public speaking and became known as a man with a story for every occasion. The new Commissioner role involved hundreds of speaking engagements, from celebrating local awards to traveling Outside to explain the Yukon to southern audiences.

He believed strongly in our awards for public service and bravery and put new energy into them. He recalled his first award: “The recipient was Giovanni Castellarin of Dawson City, but he was so busy building his new hotel that he refused to attend the presentation. With his wife’s agreement and the RCMP’s help, we had him ‘arrested’ and brought to the Palace Grand to accept the award!”

Doug also believed strongly in straight talk and, as recently as 2014, asked some direct public questions about the costly proliferation of communications advisors across government. When he was Commissioner, the Yukon government had one full-time communications post and Doug wrote his own news releases and speeches.

Referring to Whitehorse, he said “It was, certainly when I first arrived, a straight-talking town.”

After retiring as Commissioner in 1986, Doug didn’t remain idle long. He served as publisher of this newspaper for many years and wrote a column called Rambling. He was active in the community, including as a board member at the MacBride Museum.

He also remained passionate about the Northwest Staging Route, and he worked hard writing about a story he thought more people should know about.

When Will and Kate visited Whitehorse, Doug was unfazed by the royal dazzle. His job at MacBride was to send a Morse code telegraph message celebrating the visit that would go to a gadget which would convert it into a tweet for the internet. He tapped out the message quickly with a firm hand, then turned to ask the Duke whether he used Morse code when he was a pilot in the British military and search and rescue. As they chatted, it turned out Doug had met Prince William’s mother Princess Diana at a ball in Ottawa when he was Commissioner.

He always had time to talk and share an Irish whiskey and remained modest despite his accomplishments. He received the Order of Canada in 1989 and the Order of the Yukon in 2019. I’m calling it the Order of the Yukon, since in his Rambling column Doug described himself as “one of those ‘the’ Yukoners.”

To the point as always, he said that “It’s common English use worldwide, except in the bureaucratic world where politically correct often reigns over what works.”

Something obviously clicked on that double date. Doug was still talking about Pearl last time I spoke to him, and he was always happy to sit down and tell a few stories about their delightful life together at one muddy, frozen airfield or another.

We will miss him.

Douglas Leslie Dewey Bell, Order of Canada, Order of the Yukon. 1926-2021

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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