Whitehorse Daily Star

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THE BIRTHDAY BOY – Former Yukon commissioner James Smith is seen at his 90th birthday party on Dec. 31, 2009.

Former commissioner pushed for Yukon autonomy

Commissioner Doug Phillips says the late James Smith was among those who pushed hard to bring responsible government to the Yukon.

By Chuck Tobin on April 17, 2017

Commissioner Doug Phillips says the late James Smith was among those who pushed hard to bring responsible government to the Yukon.

He didn’t have to, because in his days as the commissioner appointed by Ottawa from 1966 to 1976, he was more or less the guy in charge, Phillips explained in an interview today.

Phillips said Smith believed very strongly the Yukon should be governed by Yukoners, and not Ottawa.

He said Yukoners today have Smith to thank for responsible government by an elected legislative assembly – and even for the groundwork that was laid that saw the authority over lands and resources transferred from the federal government to the Yukon in 2003.

“He said we are old enough, we are mature enough, we know more about the Yukon and we want to govern ourselves,” Phillips said.

Smith died Friday at the age of 97.

Flags at Yukon government buildings are being flown at half-mast in honour of the former commissioner’s contributions to the territory.

Phillips said he always admired Smith’s deep voice and how he would always call him young man; even when he was 69, he still called Phillips a young man.

“It was a privilege to know him and serve in the position he served in,” said the commissioner.

He continues to lobby Ottawa to change the commissioner’s title to lieutenant governor of the Yukon, just as Smith wanted, Phillips added.

Premier Sandy Silver on Friday acknowledged the role Smith played during what he described as a time of change for the Yukon.

“That transition helped make Yukon what it is today,” Silver said in a statement.

“He will be remembered for his contributions to Yukon by everyone who had the fortune to meet him, and even those who did not.”

Alex Murdoch, Smith’s grandson, said this morning a service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the United Church.

Smith is survived by his wife, Dorothy, of 76 years, daughter Marilyn Smith, son Eric Smith, three grandchildren and two great children.

He passed away peacefully in his sleep after complications due to heart failure, said Murdoch.

He said his grandfather leaves behind a significant political legacy, but also leaves behind a huge personal legacy.

“What a wonderful man he was,” said Murdoch. “He seemed to have an effect on people. He was just such a loving, kind person.

“He was a very attentive person, and when you talked to him, he was interested; he really took the time to know people.”

Murdoch said people from across the Yukon and Canada have been calling.

Smith’s list of accomplishments are long, said his grandson.

In addition to pushing for responsible government, he said, Smith was instrumental in the creation of Kluane National Park, the Arctic Winter Games and the construction of the South Klondike Highway to Skagway.

It was his grandfather who oversaw the creation of the Yukon student grant program and the construction of the government’s main administration building, which opened in 1976, he said.

Murdoch said he’s glad his grandpa’s legacy is being recognized because he really was instrumental in bringing responsible government to the Yukon.

The news release prepared by the Yukon government notes that Smith was born in New Westminster, B.C., in 1919 and lived for seven years in Atlin from 1940 to 1947 before moving to the Yukon.

He was employed as the general manager for Tourist Services, a shop which included a supermarket, motel, restaurant, gas station and cocktail lounge.

He also served over the years as president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, as a city alderman and as a member of the territorial council.

It was commissioner Smith who created the budget programming committee in 1968 to provide elected representatives of the territorial council with input into the preparation of the annual territorial budget.

During the swearing-in ceremony of the elected territorial council in December 1974, Smith noted it was the third council he was swearing in.

“It is a very significant time in the constitutional development of the Yukon to have a fully elected council of this magnitude and numbers,” one of the longest serving commissioners in the territory’s history told the 12 elected members.

“And it has not come about in a particularly easy manner. And many of the people who are around this table today and others who preceded you around this table worked very, very hard and diligently with our political masters in Ottawa to get them convinced of the necessity of the expansion of the council to the size at it is to this day.”

It was Smith who brought the change in name from the Council of the Yukon Territory to the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 1974.

After his career as commissioner, he went on to become the chair of the Northern Canada Power Commission before its assets – such as the Whitehorse Rapids Dam – were transferred in the late 1980s to the newly created Yukon Energy Corp.

Former commissioner Ken McKinnon served four terms on the elected territorial council, the last three from 1967 to 1978. It was a time of significant political change for the territory when Smith was the ultimate authority as the commissioner appointed by Ottawa.

It was not an easy task to have Ottawa agree to relinquish its governing power over the Yukon, McKinnon recalled this morning.

He said Smith, his good friend, was among those who pushed for change, though he didn’t do it alone. Nobody could have done it alone, he said.

He said the late Erik Nielsen, the Yukon’s former Conservative MP of 29 years, and the late Elijah Smith, the renowned aboriginal leader, were also among those who pushed for responsible government in the Yukon.

McKinnon recalled working with Smith and others to bring about the first Arctic Winter Games event in 1970.

Smith, said McKinnon, was a great teacher and a very intelligent man.

“I have had the privilege of working with many of the real Yukon giants, and Jimmy certainly fit into that category,” he said.

Comments (1)

Up 8 Down 0

Jack Hogan on Apr 18, 2017 at 7:22 am

Commissioner Smith was always a very polite and friendly guy to meet on the street and he would always ask how our parents were. We'd say they were doing good and he'd say "fine, fine" smile and move along. So my buddy joked about replying that our parents had passed and Jimmy would say "fine, fine" and amble along his way. We howled about this little pleasantry enjoyed by the many who he greeted in the street every day.

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