1966 Yukon Nuggets
When Gordon Cameron resigned as the Yukon's very popular commissioner in May 1966, the hunt was on for a successor.
Unlike today, the office carried with it a lot of power back then. The elected Territorial Council had little clout and most often merely rubber-stamped decisions already made by the department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa.
The Liberals under Lester Pearson were the government of the day. Arthur Laing was the Minister responsible for everthing so far as the Yukon was concerned.
Though it would be more than a decade before any substantial political redirection would occur, change was in the wind.
Meanwhile, the guessing about who would assume the number one political position in the Yukon was on everyone's mind. Guessing, betting, arguing, pleading - the job was important and Yukoners really cared who would get it.
The Whitehorse Star ran pictures of likely candidates under the heading "Guess Who?". One of those pictures was of Jimmy Smith, the well-liked manager of prosperous Tourist Services. He was born in New Westminister, educated in Burnaby, and moved to Atlin in 1940. In 1947, he and his wife, Dorothy Matson of Atlin, moved to Whitehorse.
Tourist Services was an all-in-one shopping and service stop which thrived under Jimmy Smith. He was a hands-on boss in the modern operation which included a supermarket, motel, restaurant, gas station, cocktail lounge and a wholesale grocery business.
Sort of a Walmart Plus of its day. Smith had attended the Banff School of advanced business in the late fifties and knew the details of running a complex business organization. On October 17, 1966, the all-powerful Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Arthur Laing arrived in Whitehorse carrying, in his briefcase, the name of the new commissioner.
The only surprise when he announced the name 'James Smith', was that the popular businessman would take the job. Many thought he was doing just fine where he was, but the appointment was a popular choice.
It had to be, because outgoing Commissioner Gordie Cameron had - to many - been the most popular leader the Yukon ever had.
In his introduction, Laing told Smith that "We all want the same things, to bring the Yukon into some degree of self-government as soon as possible."
Smith, who was President of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, had served two years as city alderman and three years as a Territorial Councilman. He knew the frustrations that elected Yukoners felt in dealing with an appointed head of state - the Commissioner - dictated to by a federal government three thousand miles away.
During his term as Commissioner, from 1966 until 1976, the elected council was most often in a belligerent mood. Members of the Yukon legislature vigorously lobbied the Minister of Indian Affairs to form an executive council that would include elected members in the policy-making process. The Minister, Jean Chretien, eventually accepted the appointment of a five-member executive committee, a kind of cabinet, consisting of the commissioner, two deputy commissioners, and two elected members. Not good enough for council.
In the early 70s, they flew en masse to Ottawa to demand constitutional change. Though they were generally on friendly terms with Commissioner Smith, they wanted his position and powers abolished. Nothing personal, they often said to Smith. The council just doesn't agree that an appointed commissioner should have the power to dictate policy, power that is rightly held by elected representatives.
Chretien went some distance to appease the disgruntled council in a letter which required the commissioner to give "the advice of elected members fullest possible consideration in determining the course of action to be followed in any given situation."
Thus, the commissioner was to be guided by the advice of the committee, but was not required to follow it.
Commissioner Jimmy Smith was expected to be a leader, a mediator, and a messenger, in an increasingly complex and hostile environment of party politics and land claim negotiations.
When his term ended in 1976, the winds of change continued to roll across the Yukon, but the office of Commissioner was still a power to be reckoned with.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.