"A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” – Jack London
It was a time when a generation of Yukon prospectors and miners were starting to die.
Rugged men who had spent their lifetimes exploring mountains, working the dredges in the Klondike River Valley or slogging through underground mines in places like Keno City, Weinecke City or Elsa.
Solitary men who had never had the time, inclination or opportunity to marry and father a next generation. Who had lost touch with what family they had when they came north.
When they died, they usually had no will to direct what they wanted done with their worldly possessions or wealth and nobody to give it to.
According to the laws of the day, after 10 years, their estates would revert to the Crown.
That, agreed Whitehorse businessmen Howard Firth and Rolf Hougen during a conversation in the early 1970s, was a tragedy. We not only lost the individual him or herself, they said, but then the government ultimately seized all else that was of value, and nothing remained to benefit the people of the Yukon.
What was needed was some kind of organization that could collect those estates and retain them for the good of Yukoners rather than having them vanish into the Canadian government's general revenue fund.
An organizational meeting was held at the home of Dr. Aubrey Tanner on Nov. 13, 1973.
There was one foundation in the Yukon at the time – the Yukon Medical Services Foundation, which had been founded in 1972.
In a letter dated May 31, 1974, Dr. Tanner wrote a letter to Hougen in which he stated, "Plans are underway for establishment of a ‘Yukon Foundation' in the near future. This is intended to be an organization which accepts and manages charitable funds from individuals or organizations such as our own Yukon Medical Services Foundation.”
Nothing happened for a number of years following the meeting and Dr. Tanner's letter. However, the idea lingered in Hougen's mind and in 1980, he resolved to do something about it.
He approached several prominent individuals both inside and outside the Yukon, asking them to write a cheque to help kick off the foundation.
"I wrote a cheque for $100,” said Tom Firth, the eldest son of Howard Firth, who had died in 1977.
"Rolf had originally asked us for $1,000 each, but not everybody could afford that and not all of us were totally convinced it would work. I wasn't even sure what it was for, but Rolf was asking, so I wrote the cheque.”
Others writing cheques included Yukon MP Erik Nielsen, former mayor Flo Whyard, former government leader Willard Phelps, Tanner, Charlie Taylor, former commissioners Ione Christensen and Jim Smith, Laurent Cyr, Belle Desrosier, Charles "Chuck” Halliday, Bob Erlam, Roy Minter, Bill Drury Sr. and Lorraine Joe.
One who didn't write a cheque was Gordie Ryder. He paid cash.
Early "Outside” contributors included writer Richard Finnie from Belvedere, Calif., better known at the time as "Klondike Dick” Finnie, and B.C. court of appeal justice M.M. McFarlane from Vancouver.
The founding members automatically became the foundation's first board of directors. Their initial meeting was held in the Bonanza Room on Dec. 16, 1980, where they set down the fundamentals of the foundation concerning its objectives and structure.
It was determined that, while they could take steps to increase community awareness of its existence and purpose, the foundation would never take part in any fund-raising effort of any kind. All potential donors would have to approach the foundation to state their intentions and make their gift.
Their objectives were few, but far-reaching:
"To promote educational advancement and scientific or medical research for the enhancement of human knowledge.
"To provide support intended to contribute to the mental, cultural and physical well-being of residents of the Yukon.
"To promote the cultural heritage of the Yukon.”
An executive was elected, with Hougen serving as chair, Christensen named vice-chair, Smith as secretary and Halliday treasurer.
A brochure was drafted for delivery to every Yukon resident.
It asked, "What would I like to see happen for the good of the Yukon, now or in the future, and what can I do to give it substance so that it will become a reality?”
Erlam, the Star's former longtime publisher, announced to the directors they had received their first donation.
Yukon Indian Craft Ltd. had been a non-profit organization incorporated to promote the craft industry in the Yukon. Its longtime manager, Lorraine Joe, had purchased the business and set up her own store, but there was still $40,000 left in the organization's bank account.
When a non-profit organization is wound down, any assets and funds must be transferred to another non-profit or foundation.
Joe decided to give the funds to the Yukon Foundation to support future educational needs of Indian children and preserve their cultural heritage. It was named the Yukon Indian Heritage Fund.
Over the next year, donors continued to add to the foundation.
Eighty-six-year-old Alec Berry, a former territorial legislative member and miner for almost 60 years, set up a scholarship.
Ruby Besner established a fund in the name of her late husband, Henry, to foster the well-being and development of youth. When the Yukon Research and Development Institute was folded, its bank account went to the foundation.
In 1983, the Yukon Foundation was able to distribute $6,600 to three projects. It helped fund a new roof for the Child Development Cenre, finance the purchase of a beaded baby carrier from Old Crow for the Friends of the Gallery, and assisted in publishing the then-Council for Yukon Indians' book, Part of the Land, Part of the Water.
Three years later, they were able to award their first scholarships.
Teacher Elsie Netro from Mayo was assisted in her master's program at the University of British Columbia.
Whitehorse residents Don Buyck, attending a Life Skills Training Center in Edmonton, and Elly Mout, studying special education at UBC., also received funds.
Since then, more than 1,500 Yukon university students, athletes and organizations have received grants from and through the Foundation totalling over $1 million.
The Yukon Foundation Act was passed into law in 1995, establishing the Foundation as a separate legal entity. The legislation enshrined the objectives of the Foundation and defined the administrative guidelines under which the Foundation would operate.
It created a 20-member board including seats representing Alaska Highway North, Dawson City, Mayo and Watson Lake. In addition, there is board representation from the Government of Yukon, Council of Yukon First Nations, Yukon Order of Pioneers, Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, Yukon
Chamber of Mines and the Law Society of the Yukon.
"This act will enshrine in legislation the community organization that has been in existence since 1980 and which benefits our community in many ways,” then-Justice minister Doug Phillips stated in his speech to the Yukon legislature during the second reading of the bill.
"...This legislation will provide the Yukon Foundation with the perpetuity right to protect the assets that have been bequeathed to it and to fulfill the wishes of the donors to the foundation.”
Then-MLA Bea Firth also spoke on behalf of the bill:
"The Yukon Foundation provided the first place for Yukoners to invest in the future, keeping that investment in the Yukon .... When reviewing other foundations across Canada, one finds this is the path most take. The mentor of the Yukon Foundation, the Vancouver Foundation, is directed by an act, as is the Victoria Foundation, whose act has been used as a pattern for this legislation.”
The act enpowered the foundation to hold as perpetual endowments the capital gifts, bequests and assignment of everyone who asked to have their funds administered.
In 1995, the foundation had 35 funds and $600,000 under administration. In 2010, the Yukon Foundation is administering more than $6 million in 140 dedicated funds.
The money has come from corporations, government, estates, individuals and defunct non-profit organizations whose work can continue through the foundation long after they have ceased to exist.
The current chairperson of the board of directors, and only the sixth chair in 30 years, is Verna Hart, whose father, Charlie Taylor, was one of the founding members.
As an elementary school teacher who has taught possibly 1,000 Yukon students over the past three decades, she knows the value of the role the foundation can play in their post-secondary education.
"It's always exciting to see a student who I knew as a small child, now working towards a university degree or a trade, and know we can help them achieve their ambition,” she says. "I hope it comes full-circle one day, when the board of directors isn't made up of people like us, whose children might have benefited from the foundation.
"When the directors are people who experienced, as students themselves, the assistance Yukon Foundation provided and want to do the same for their children. That's what it's all about.”
The writer is a longtime Yukon resident and author with extensive involvement with the Yukon Foundation.