It was his considerable contributions to the territory’s artistic flavour that Donna and Ed Isaak believed was worthy of honourary recognition.
Robb was appointed this week by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson as a member of the Order of Canada.
The announcement came a month after Robb was informed of the honour – but told to keep it confidential until it was made public Tuesday.
It came two years after Isaak submitted her request with some 300 accompanying letters of support by Yukoners of all walks of life.
“I feel that people are starting to recognize that I do some important work,” Robb said in an interview after learning of the appointment.
“It is some good recognition, I feel. It made me really feel good, you know what I mean?”
The 70-year-old artist came to the Yukon in March 1956 from Quebec. He worked at different jobs – survey work, a carpenter’s helper and a general labourer.
“And after a good two years, I finally said, ‘If I am going to make $1.50 a day, I am go to do what I do best, and what I like to do.’”
He began doing charcoal and pastel drawings on moosehides stretched between willow poles by Annie and Harry Silverfox and their son, Billy.
In the 15 years he continued to do the moosehide art, Robb figures hundreds were produced, though he has no number.
Nor is he sure how many ink and water colour pieces he’s produced since taking up those materials in the early ’60s. It’s difficult, however, to go almost anywhere in the territory without seeing a Jim Robb work hanging on the wall.
“For over 40 years, James Robb has brought the Yukon’s unique past to life in his sketches, watercolour paintings and photography,” reads the citation prepared by the Governor General’s office.
“Finding inspiration in such places as Dawson City, remote areas of the Klondike and Whitehorse’s Whiskey Flats, he has captured the territory’s history through his depictions of buildings, events and pioneer characters.
“This prolific artist has been widely featured in books, magazines and newspapers and has supported the local cultural and artistic community.”
The citation also notes Robb’s willingness to donate works to several charities and organizations over the years.
Robb said he is particularly proud of his work documenting the different personalities of the Yukon that he found to have flare and colour.
In his three soft-cover publications of The Colourful Five Per Cent, the life-long bachelor has featured Yukoners from the mining community to the business community, and everything in between.
“Anybody who was interesting at all, who I thought was a colourful, interesting person,” he said of his selection criteria.
They were, and are, said Robb, the colourful five per cent.
In 2003, because he was so busy with his work, Robb opted to discontinue the long-running column by the same name he compiled for the Star each Friday.
Displaying a historic Yukon photo, the column would ask readers to write in with information about the people or the scene in it.
As a lark for Robb’s 65th birthday, long-time friend Doris Gates teamed up with Star editor Jim Butler to publish a decades-old photo of Robb in the column – to the veteran artist’s complete surprise.
The Isaaks, meanwhile, have been friends with Robb for 40 years, as well as admirers of his work.
“My husband and I just thought, ‘You know, he would be a deserving candidate for the Order of Canada,’ and nobody had tried to do it, so we thought we would try,” Isaak said Thursday.
Isaak said she recruited the assistance of then-Whitehorse Centre MLA Mike McLarnon and life-long Yukoner Babe Richards.
Together, they compiled about 300 letters of support, which they submitted in March 2002 with the application to have Robb appointed to the Order.
Isaak said she learned from Rideau Hall that they required permission from Robb to let his name stand.
Having carried out their exercise of gathering letters without his knowing, Isaak said she approached Robb with the idea.
“He said to me, ‘OK, Donna, but would I have to wear a monkey suit?’ and he said, “Oh my God, would I have to go to Ottawa?’”
Isaak told the casual dresser he could surely grin and bear a suit for a day, and perhaps make arrangements to have the honour bestowed upon him here, by Commissioner Jack Cable.
Isaak said she understands Robb was sworn to secrecy after he was contacted by the Governor General’s office a month ago.
“I can’t believe he didn’t even tell me,” she chuckled.
Richards said when she was recruited to assist with gathering letters of support, she jumped in with both feet, and was more than happy to do so for a friend she has known since he arrived in the territory.
“I thought, ‘Yes, if anybody deserves it, he does.’”
Not one to travel, having been outside the territory only once in the last 35 years, Robb said he just might have to go to Ottawa.
“This is quite a thing, and it is thanks to a lot of friends who supported me.”