After 46 years under the descriptive but prosaic title of “Main Administration Building,” the Yukon government headquarters building has been renamed after legendary Yukon Commissioner Jim Smith.
I grew up hearing stories about Smith from my father, who dealt with him regularly on business and community projects. I also had the privilege of interviewing Smith on camera for the Northwestel Community Television series on Yukon Commissioners.
It’s uncommon to name things after people these days since they tend to be, on inspection, all too human. Young Yukon leaders of all backgrounds may be debating whether it makes sense for the government to rename a building after a historical figure from the 20th century, which is a fair debate to have. But they may also be wondering how a butcher from Atlin acquired the adjective “legendary.” The more ambitious among them will be asking themselves a more specific question: how do I get a large building named after myself?
The Yukon could use more effective leadership across business and government, so here are four Smithian tips for up-and-comers in the territory.
The first is to have a vision. For Canada’s 100th birthday, he pitched Prime Minister Pearson on the idea of a Yukon Grant to support Yukon trades and university students. He wasn’t thinking “how can I get more money out of Ottawa.” Pearson asked if the grant should be conditional on students returning to work in the Yukon. Smith explained his vision, which was that the grant was a way for the Yukon to grow up and contribute back to the country. The grant would be unconditional, and recipient Yukoners would “be educated Canadians and they’ll add to the general benefit of the country.”
He also developed a bold vision for the Yukon economy, working with a young federal minister named Jean Chretien. The Carr Report laid out a 20-year path to a thriving industrial economy and a population of 57,000 by 1985.
Smith would fail to meet his goals. The Yukon was blindsided in 1973 by an unexpected war in the Middle East, soaring oil prices and a decade of stagflation. The population in 1985 was less than half of the target.
But even though he failed, Smith’s ambitions left us with the big hydro dams, highways and airports that we take for granted today.
The second tip is to be an active listener. Back in the day, it seemed like you couldn’t walk down Main Street without running into Smith. He ran an open-door policy at the office, and said that First Nations leader Elijah Smith would often just drop in to talk about the issue of the day. This was important at a time when First Nations leaders were writing Together Today for our Children Tomorrow and planning their trip to see Chretien in Ottawa.
If you observe current Yukon politics for long enough, you’ll start to recognize a recurring series of events. A minister announces something. Someone complains. The minister says he or she consulted widely. The affected citizens get angry and say the details are news to them, their input was ignored or they couldn’t get a meeting with the minister.
If a minister told Smith the consultation plan was to run an online survey and hold a few public meetings at times many people couldn’t attend, Smith would advise getting out of the bubble in the Smith Building and talking to people who disagree with you.
I think of Smith when I hear Yukon board volunteers talking about how they wish they could communicate directly with top decision makers. Whitehorse may be three times the size it was in Smith’s day, but it’s not Washington, DC.
The third tip is relationships. Smith actively built relationships in the Yukon and with our key partners. This was closely linked to his penchant for getting out of the office and talking to people. Many of his stories involved working with someone he had developed a good working relationship with.
This included Elijah Smith on First Nations issues, Jean Chretien on federal topics, and Alaska Governor Bill Egan. Smith, Egan and Northwest Territories Commissioner Stuart Hodgson worked together to start the Arctic Winter Games. He never told me about attending conferences and speaking on panels, but his stories were laced with phone calls and meetings at key moments.
The reason we have the Skagway road is that Smith managed to convince Chretien, who had been involved in the Carr Report planning, to write a letter saying the feds would pay for the road and its maintenance. He then flew to Victoria with his Arctic Winter Games friend Governor Egan to pitch the idea to a newly elected British Columbia premier.
The final Smithian tip is having a bias to action. The Smith Building houses not just the legislative arm of government, but also the executive. While common parlance associates the word “executive” with over-paid, under-accountable bigwigs flying to conferences, the root of the word is about getting things done.
He would probably say that today’s government is tilted too much towards policy and communication, and away from execution. All levels of government have lots of carefully presented policy announcements but trouble delivering on the ground. Stand-out leaders of the future will be able to do both.
And Smith did get things done. He told me that the Yukon government wanted to build a spur road on the north bank of the Pelly River connecting Pelly Ranch to the highway. The official in charge was unavailable, so the commissioner filled in the federal grant application himself.
He also got the Main Administration Building built. At the time it was a big and controversial project. The earlier plan with a big central tower (see photo) may have seemed too outlandish to build in 1976, but the skyscraper provisions in this year’s Official Community Plan show that Smith was — once again — just ahead of his time.
He stayed in action mode even after he left office. Seeing that the grant was not enough for some Yukoners, he co-founded the Yukon Foundation which now supports over 150 students per year.
Today, the Yukon seems to be drifting, being carried somewhere by a massive river of federal money like a canoe with no one paddling. We’re moving, but is it towards a destination, a sandbar or a sweeper?
The next generation of leaders will do well to pick up a few tips from Jim Smith to steer the Yukon through the 21st century.
Commissioner Jim Smith’s interview with Keith Halliday is available on YouTube as part of Northwestel Community TV’s Our Yukon Commissioners.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.