Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Dan Davidson

YUKON LOSES THE MOTHER OF RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT - Jean Gordon cuddles with her dog, Rascal, in August 2007.

'Jean was the Yukon's Sarah Palin'

DAWSON CITY - The woman who was feted in 2007 as the "mother of responsible government" passed away Sept. 5 after a protracted illness.

By Dan Davidson on September 15, 2008

DAWSON CITY - The woman who was feted in 2007 as the "mother of responsible government" passed away Sept. 5 after a protracted illness.

Jean Gordon was the first woman to be elected to the Yukon's legislative assembly, becoming the member for Mayo in 1967.

In those days, the government was run by the commissioner, and the elected representatives were simply an advisory body known as the territorial council.

Gordon was part of the group that began to change that status, but her life prior to her stint in government was hardly typical for a politician.

Interviewed a few days after her death, former commissioner Ken McKinnon, who was in that same council with Gordon 40 years ago, waxed enthusiastic about the woman who acted as something of a surrogate mother to himself and the other younger men in government at the time.

"She was as important to the development of devolution and responsible government in the Yukon as Erik (Nielsen) was on the federal scene,"

McKinnon said of the former Yukon MP, who died Sept. 4 in Kelowna, B.C.

"Jean was working with us very closely on the territorial scene.

"I remember that when we were finally successful and we were going to have a meeting with the prime minster (Trudeau) and the-then minister of

Northern Affairs, Jean Chretien, in Trudeau's office, all seven of us went."

They went with a recommendation that three members be elected to a cabinet, which would be the forerunner of responsible government.

Trudeau and Chretien initially offered them one member of the executive council, which the group figured would be a waste of time and energy. Discussions led to a compromise at two members.

"Really, for all the priority that's given to the Epp letter as being the beginning of responsible government in Yukon, it was that meeting with Trudeau, with Jean in attendance, (which) was the true initiation of responsible government."

(Jake Epp, the Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister in 1979, wrote a letter that year transferring major powers from the commissioner to the legislature.)

Thinking about the woman who was his political colleague, long-time friend and surrogate mother, McKinnon drew on current events for a comparison.

"Jean was the Yukon's Sarah Palin before Sarah Palin ever became a phenomenon," he said about the U.S. Republican Party's vice-presidential nominee.

"She was the first woman I ever met who could skin a moose, skin a wolf, shoot a bear - absolutely fearless," McKinnon said in an earlier interview in 2007.

Gertrude Jean Gordon was born in Vancouver in 1918, but grew up in Alice Arm and Stewart, B.C., which is where she met her husband, Wilfred, and where she married him in 1937 at the age of 19.

Wilfred had already been to Dawson City, and it is to there that the newlyweds returned after about a year.

They stayed only a month before heading out to Granville on Dominion Creek, where they lived until Wilfred took a permanent job with the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corp., looking after Australia Ditch.

While living in the bush for seven years, they trapped, ran a dog team (with a wolf in harness) and even raised three bear cubs.

In 1945, their daughter, Betty, was old enough to go to school, and the family decided to move to Mayo so she could socialize with other children.

There, Jean became active as a volunteer, serving as treasurer and secretary for the Mayo Community Club, bookkeeper for the Community Theatre, and a weekly columnist for the Star.

At age 49, she ended up running for the local seat on the territorial council, largely, as she put it during a 2007 interview, because "I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

"It was local issues. I always felt I had to go to bat for someone who couldn't speak for themselves."

She had assisted in running campaigns before, so it wasn't such a big leap, she said.

On the council, she told the men to simply call her "Charlie", indicating that she expected no special treatment as a woman.

She had no time for the perks of office either and drove a battered VW Beetle back and forth between Mayo and Whitehorse during her three years on council.

Sitting in her trailer home in Mayo in the summer of 2007, she recalled how government officials had tried to persuade her that the Bug was beneath the dignity of someone in her office.

"I told them I didn't plan to be doing this for the rest of my life," she said.

Looking at government in the territory all those years later, her 2007 assessment was that there was too much politics and not enough good government.

"Party politics was a mistake," she said, sitting back in her recliner, her breathing assisted by an oxygen tube that she would later insist on removing for a photograph.

She said it was better when people tried harder to co-operate and doubted that her 1967-70 council would have made as much progress as it did if political parties had been part of the mix.

True to her prediction, she didn't remain in government. In 1970, she was defeated and returned to regular life in Mayo, but certainly didn't slow down at all.

She laughed when recounting how she studied for her certificate in bookkeeping in 1972. It was something she'd been doing for years, but now she could do it officially.

She went to work for Canada Manpower and the local post office and started up the Mayor Outreach Office, which she ran for years.

"I loved putting people into jobs. That was maybe the best job I ever had."

There was another task that she really enjoyed: her 20-year stint on the Yukon Territory Water Board. She said she loved puncturing the pretensions of the federal bureaucrats.

In 1999, Jean was on the co-ordinating committee for the International year of Older Persons as the member for the Yukon. Locally, she organized the planting of 34 birch trees in Galena Park, one for each of the seniors in Mayo over the age of 65.

Among her other local projects was the local paper, the volunteer-run Stewart Valley Voice, which she helped to get going and still worked on well into her 80s.

In 2007, she was pleased to show off the local product and had a cache of back issues in her trailer's living room, along with stacks of paperback novels which she devoured in great quantities.

"I haunt the second-hand book shops," she said. "We've got a free store out here and I go there with a Rubbermaid tub and pick the biggest, fattest ones I can find."

Said McKinnon : "She was a super, super lady. As the first woman elected to the council, there just couldn't have been a better Yukoner to fit that role."

Comments (2)

Up 0 Down 2

Alex on Sep 17, 2008 at 10:15 am

I agree, while this article may have been given this headline with good intentions...If one does their research they will find Sarah Palin has less than a respectable reputaion. It is an insult to compair this great yukon woman with this alaskan govenor accused of multiple scandals.

Up 0 Down 1

Michelle Redfearn on Sep 16, 2008 at 5:52 am

You should abide by your own policy! Comparing this great woman to Sarah Palin might be an insult to some of her friends!

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