Photo by Whitehorse Star
Ken McKinnon - Seen in 2016
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Ken McKinnon - Seen in 2016
A one-time commissioner of the territory is being remembered as a Yukoner through and through by his colleagues, after Ken McKinnon died Wednesday at the age of 82.
At 25, he was elected as the youngest member to the Yukon Territorial Council at the start of what would become a political career, beginning in 1961. But his involvement in sports, academia and beyond are also note-worthy, his colleagues said.
“Ken was a very well-respected figure within the college; he was always good-natured,” Piers McDonald, a former NDP government leader, told the Star this morning, adding he was at times also animated.
McDonald is Yukon College’s chancellor, a role McKinnon had been appointed to from 2000 to 2004.
“The moment you locked eyes, he’d sort of get a big wide smile, twinkling eyes, he’d start talking right away.
“He’s always on, he was a very special guy,” McDonald added.
His more significant interactions with McKinnon came when both served as politicians during the 1980s, a time when he had already become pretty well-known, McDonald said.
“By that time, he’d cut his teeth on some big issues that were driving the territory forward – including devolution of political responsibility to public government and land claims.”
What sticks out, he added, is that he was never off.
“He was chomping at the bit to know what was going on.”
That wasn’t lost on Doug Phillips either, another one-time commissioner who more recently shared his community of Marsh Lake with McKinnon and was a neighbour.
“We always talked about different things,” Phillips said Thursday.
“We had interesting and exciting and heartening and sometimes opposing views on political issues in the territory, but he was always one that was very knowledgeable,” he laughed.
“Ken was always willing to share his political opinion when you met him.”
McKinnon’s ambitious plans were a highlight for Phillips, who recently visited his friend at Whitehorse General Hospital.
“We joked we could solve all the problems of the world here (in Marsh Lake) in two to three hours, and Ken was one who, if you asked Ken a question, he had a lot of information,” Phillips recalled, reflecting on conversations had around his home.
Dan Lang, a former territorial Conservative cabinet minister and Yukon senator, served on the council’s executive committee with McKinnon from 1974 to 1978.
“I got to know him well, and his greatest contribution to the political world was his commitment to responsible government,” Lang told the Star Thursday afternoon. “Ken played a very signficant role in this commitment.
“That was the foundation of our going toward responsible government, and I was very fortunate to be there and serve with him.”
The late lawmaker had to grapple with several important and difficult portfolios, Lang recalled. One was the development of meaningful amounts of land, so newcomers to the growing territory could acquire a lot to build a home on.
“He was also the architect of the Home Owners Grant, from which everyone benefits today,” Lang noted.
He remembered his friend as a gifted orator, and a man who was tenacious in his efforts to further the territory’s interests. Moreover, he was a good husband and father, Lang pointed out.
“He was also a pretty good hockey player and a good basketball player in his younger days, as well as being the architect of the initiative of the Arctic Winter Games ... we’re talking 50 years ago.”
On top of his achievements with the assessment board, Yukon College and issues with his community of Marsh Lake, Lang remembered, “Ken could tell a story and keep you enamoured about how he told it.”
Ione Christensen was commissioner before McKinnon’s reign from 1986 to 1995.
Speaking to the Star Thursday afternoon, Christensen recalled the Manitoba native’s story as one similar to many Yukoners.
“He adopted the Yukon as his own and fit into the lifestyle extremely well, which is typical of so many Yukoners who came here for a short time and stayed forever,” she said.
Born in Winnipeg in 1936, the debater and athlete went to school in his hometown before making his way to B.C. and eventually north to the territory in 1956.
It was here he began working as a surveyor, lineman and Cat skinner for the telegraph line.
Just years later, in 1960, armed with a political science degree, he set his more permanent sights on calling the Yukon home.
It didn’t take long for him to become active in the political scene here; in 1961, he was elected to the council, serving four terms and at one point the minister of Highways and Public Works.
Then came the ultimate test: in 1986, he was appointed to the role of commissioner, one he assumed for just under a decade.
Eventually, he’d go on to serve in a number of appointed positions, including chancellor of Yukon College and chair of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board.
His more direct impact may be felt as Yukoners enjoy the electric Christmas lights on the SS Klondike, which he pushed for in the 1980s and has since become a winter tradition.
An avid outdoorsman, he could be seen cycling, skiing, fishing or tending to his garden at Marsh Lake (producing his many Yukon gold potatoes).
“He was a happy guy; you’d always hear Ken laugh wherever he was,” Christensen said. “You always knew Ken was around somewhere.”
It wasn’t just his presence in the political field that stuck out for Phillips – having him over to talk all things future of the territory was always a treat.
“Ken was, in the context of making the Yukon better, he was a Jack of all trades,” Phillips said, wondering if the Arctic Winter Games would have become what they have if it wasn’t for McKinnon becoming their founding president.
His grit and passion to make the Yukon a better and more independent place was seen in his push for self-determination too, Phillips added.
“This was the first time we said Yukoners should be elected by Yukoners and Yukon should be governed by Yukoners – Ken was one of those people involved.”
Up until that time, the fate of the territory rested very much in Ottawa’s hands.
Recalling the Lang and former commissioner Jim Smith days, Phillips noted McKinnon was at least in part to thank for what Yukoners see today.
“Jim and Dan and Ken and others, were firm believers that Yukon should control its own destiny.”
Nils Clarke, the Speaker of the legislative assembly, notified the House of McKinnon’s passing on Thursday afternoon, before MLAs stood in a moment of silence.
His family members, including his son, Craig, were recognized as visitors, as one MLA recalled McKinnon’s “contagious spirit.”
That’s Community Services Minister John Streicker, who, in a tribute to the 2020 AWG, recalled the late McKinnon’s words.
“The first Games is only the beginning of a great concept which will grow to include northern peoples from around the top of the world,” Streicker recalled the competitive athlete saying, 50 years ago.
That was ahead of the second Games being hosted in the city in 1972.
Premier Sandy Silver, said in a statement yesterday the long-time Yukoner was an advocate for the territory throughout his years.
“He was a smiling face and warm ambassador for the Yukon his entire life,” Silver said. “His passing is a loss many Yukoners will feel deeply.”
Stacey Hassard, the Yukon Party’s interim leader, also expressed condolences about the respected politician, noting “his contributions to Yukon are greatly appreciated.”
After government leader Chris Pearson stepped down in the fall of 1984, McKinnon ran for the territorial Conservative party’s leadership, opposing the late Bea Firth, a minister under Pearson, and Willard Phelps, who won the leadership 34 years ago last Saturday.
At the federal level, Yukon MP Larry Bagnell recalled his fond memories.
As commissioner, McKinnon “ably chaired” meetings with federal officials with his “easy-going attitude and sense of humour.”
During the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Highway, McKinnon chaired the celebration with energy and enthusiasm, Bagnell added.
“I remember his zest and diplomacy skills in re-creating the highway’s ribbon-cutting and joining on both ends of the highway,” Bagnell said. “He was completely undeterred by the - 30 C temperatures we had at Soldiers’ Summit that day.”
The flags outside the Yukon Government Main Administration Building were at half-mast Thursday, as MLAs paid tribute to McKinnon inside.
“Lots of times, we’ll lower our flags for different reasons,” Phillips said. “And I think today we are glad it is legitimately at half-mast for someone who made the Yukon better.”
The late commissioner is survived by his wife, Judy, two children, siblings and grandchildren. He passed away of cholangiosarcoma at the city’s hospital.
As he requested, there will be no funeral. Part of his ashes will be spread with the whales and halibut at Point Adolphus in Icy Strait and the other half at the point where the Yukon and McLintock rivers meet, “to flow down the much-loved Yukon.”
– With a file from Jim Butler
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