Chris Pearson – the leader of the Yukon's first independent territorial government – died last Friday at the age of 82.
A resident of Claytor Lake, Virginia, Pearson left the Yukon in the mid-1980s shortly after he resigned from office, when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney appointed him as the Deputy Consul General at the Canadian Consulate in Dallas, Texas.
He was selected to lead the Conservative Party in 1978 after then-party leader Hilda Watson failed to regain her seat in Kluane in the November territorial election.
Pearson was appointed interim leader in the wake of Watson's defeat, then went unchallenged in the February 1979 leadership convention.
It was Pearson who pushed for the Yukon's right to govern independently, without having to answer to the Yukon's commissioner, Ottawa's representative.
"Chris Pearson was a very calming individual,” Senator Dan Lang, who served in Pearson's first cabinet, said in an interview this week. "He was not easily rattled, so to speak. That was one of his strengths as a I saw it.”
Lang said Pearson and the Conservative caucus, with the help of the Yukon MP at the time, the late Erik Neilsen, worked diligently to bring responsible government to the Yukon.
"Through his work, we were able to make these significant constitutional changes.”
Pearson was a nice guy who preferred to lead by consensus among his colleagues, though at the end of the day, if a decision had to be made, he knew where the buck stopped, Lang said.
In a statement issued Thursday, Premier Darrell Pasloski said: "It was with sadness that we learn of the passing of Chris Pearson, Yukon's first premier .... On behalf of all Yukoners, I send my deepest sympathies to the family of Chris Pearson. Flags are respectfully half-mast to honour Mr. Pearson.”
At the behest of Pearson and his caucus, Jake Epp, then the federal Indian and Northern Affairs minister, penned what is commonly referred to as the historic Epp letter of Oct. 9, 1979.
In his letter, Epp divested then-Yukon commissioner Ione Christensen of her authority over the elected executive committee and gave the executive committee the power to govern independently of Ottawa's representative.
The letter enabled the government leader to adopt the title as premier, though Pearson chose to maintain the title as government leader.
Pearson moved to the Yukon in 1957 as a civil engineer. He became involved in various aspects of the Whitehorse community, including a stint as the volunteer president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.
Following his first election to office in 1978 as the representative of Riverdale North, and his subsequent elevation to government leader, Pearson sought and won a second term as government leader in the June 7, 1982 election.
He was credited with ensuring the Yukon government was not just an observer but played an active role in the negotiations to settle aboriginal land claims in the territory.
Willard Phelps, the chief negotiator for the Yukon government back then, recalled in an interview Thursday how he was dispatched to Ottawa by the commissioner before the arrival of the Epp letter.
Christensen wanted to ensure the Yukon was a full partner in the land claims negotiations, despite federal reluctance, said Phelps.
He said when Pearson took over as the official government leader in late 1979, he took up the same stance as Christensen.
There were also a couple of pivotal issues for the Yukon in the early 1980s which Pearson stood behind with steadfast resolve, Phelps recalled.
He said the federal government had signed an agreement-in-principle with the Inuvialuit of the western Arctic which gave them significant control over northern Yukon, without any input from the Yukon government. Yukoners were up in arms, including Pearson, he said.
Phelps said back in those days, changing an agreement-in-principle signed by the federal government was unheard of, but they did it.
And Herschel Island was identified as a future territorial park in the process, guaranteeing the Yukon a presence in the Beaufort.
He said in 1983 under Pearson's leadership, the Yukon left the land claim negotiating table for several months.
The federal government refused to provide assurances it would give the Yukon control of the territory's lands and resources once land claims were concluded.
Pearson didn't budge.
"I felt he wanted what was best for the Yukon, which is easy to say, but he was quite willing to take a stand when we had to.”
Phelps, who succeeded Pearson as government leader in 1985 after he resigned, said he believes continuing unrest among the Yukon Territorial Progressive Conservative Party faithful over Pearson's leadership was a factor in his decision to leave politics.
Gordon Steele served as Pearson's principal secretary at the time. It was Steele who helped draft the government leader's letter to Jake Epp requesting self-governing authority for the territory.
Pearson, said Steele, served in a time of significant constitutional change for the Yukon.
There was the push in Ottawa for territorial autonomy, aboriginal land claim negotiations on the home front, the situation with the Inuvialuit in the North and an economy that was in a shambles.
The Faro lead-zibc mine shut down in 1982, bringing about the end of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway connection between Skagway and Whitehorse. The Whitehorse Copper Mine closed in the fall of that year.
Pearson juggled it all with leadership, said Steele, recalling how the government leader implemented what was known in 1982 as the nine-day fortnight – the government would close down every second Friday to save money.
There was no formula financing agreement back then, Steele pointed out.
He said when the territory was in trouble, it meant going to Ottawa with hat in hand.
Pearson, said Steele, was on the front end of developing a financial arrangement with Ottawa so that the territory's bank account would be based on hard numbers, not on how generous the federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs was feeling.
"He was really quite a remarkable leader when you look at the issues he was facing,” said Steele, the principal secretary to Pasloski.
"Chris was just a real gentleman and a tremendous leader.”
See editorial and premier's tribute.