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Bookends: Gazing at the Heart of Gold October 24, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Gazing at the Heart of Gold

By Dan Davidson

September 5, 2012,     Star, Sept. 10/12

– 813 words –

At the Heart of Gold

The Yukon Commissioner’s Office 1898-2010

By Linda Johnson

Legislative Assembly of the Yukon

334 pages


It’s difficult to explain the role of the Yukon’s Commissioner to people from Outside. It’s a bit like the Lieutenant Governor of the Provinces, except in the ways that it isn’t.  In spite of the steady growth towards Responsible and Representative government which has taken place through the 112 years, and in spite of the current government bureaucracy’s persistence in taking the “T” out of “YTG”, we are still very much a territory, still very small, and still very much one of what historians Kenneth Coates and William Morrison have called “Canada’s Colonies”.

I came to the Yukon during the last years of rule by the Commissioner and Executive Committee, or Excom, as we all called it. Having grown up in Nova Scotia at a time when party loyalties were expected to go hand in hand with your choice of a church and the rest of the family baggage, I don’t think I had the background to appreciate what a significant change took place when party politics came to the territory. Given some of what has gone on since I’m never entirely convinced that we have a large enough gene pool to deal with the concept, but it is not without its points of interest.

What we learn in the introduction of this book is that it was ever thus, and there were some decades when the roles of Commissioner and Administrator were both abolished die to the shenanigans of the day. Indeed, G. A. Jeckell, who more or less governed the territory for a decade during his career, did so under three different titles, the last of which was the aptly termed “Controller”.

Once the role of Commissioner was reinstated in 1948 it would appear that most of the men and women who filled the role edged it closer and closer to what it s today, but it was progress by centimetres and often times the elected members of the government and those who were appointed by the Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs, were are loggerheads as to who should be doing what.

Since many of the still living individuals who contributed to this book have held many different roles during their lives, it is interesting to see how different minds viewed the same events from differing perspectives. When people have been town councillors, mayors, leaders of Native organizations, elected members of the legislature, Commissioners and Senators over a period of some 60 years, from Gordon Cameron through to Doug Phillips, it is inevitable that they have worked with, against, for, under and over each other from a number of different positions. The justaposition of viewpoints can, at times, be quite dizzying.

I had the pleasure discussing the concept for this book with former Commissioner Geraldine Van Bibber during one of the many conversations we had during her term of office, so I was delighted to see it come into being in such a splendid way.  It is a fitting companion, in both theme and design, to Johnson’s earlier book, With the People Who Live Here: The History of the Yukon Legislature 1909-1961.

In a very real sense the author’s name section on my heading should read Linda Johnson et al, because the living men and women who filled the position and whose oral interviews shaped the narrative after the historical introduction section, did a lot to contribute to the book, and their chapters have very individual characteristics.

Van Bibber was determined that this book should do its best to take the veil from the office and give it both humanity and a dignity that she felt it did not have. Her office did not have the money needed to bring the project to fruition. It was former Speaker of the House Ted Staffen who found the money in his budget to make the book a reality.

This is not a dry history. Each chapter has a different flavour and each account of the life that led to the office and what happened after is personal and engaging.

No doubt there are some historical inaccuracies in the book. These chapters are memoirs, and whose memory among us is perfect. There are even some internal contradictions in the various accounts of the same events, but that just serves to make it more interesting and to remind us that, in spite of the title, these are all just regular folks trying to do a complex job to the best of their ability.

I’m not sure how widely available this book is. It’s selling at the Yukon College book store for $25, but it certainly should be on sale other places if it isn’t already.




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