Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Jim Butler

A SURPRISE DISCOVERY – Tim McTiernan, the Yukon government’s co-ordinator of Beaufort Sea research, examines the Bombardier with the Gulf logos on it during the night of Aug. 25, 1983. Then-reporter Jim Butler had found the vehicle in an abandoned DEW Line station garage at Stokes Point, northern Yukon.

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Photo by Jim Butler

FLYING HIGH – This Yukon flag was erected in August 1983 at Stokes Point by then-government leader Chris Pearson and ministers Clarke Ashley, Howard Tracey and Andy Philipsen.

Musing 43 years of history (the tutor of life)

“Be careful, Jim! There’s a bear out there!”

By Jim Butler on May 17, 2024

“When the sun rises, I go to work. When the sun goes down, I take my rest.” – Chinese proverb

“Be careful, Jim! There’s a bear out there!”

Then-Yukon MP Erik Nielsen’s shouted words rang in our ears as CBC Yukon news editor Mike Hornbrook and I retreated to the floatplane bobbing off the shore of Quiet Lake on that sunny spring day in 1986.

The venerable politician had called out the words from the deck of his fabled cabin; his sacred retreat where he had savoured thousands of hours of relaxation time with family members and friends.

I mention the anecdote because it’s one of the most persistent of the blizzards of memories I have accumulated as the Star’s political reporter for seven years and editor for 36 years.

Last week, I calculated there were 35 years of publishing five papers a week and eight years of producing three papers per week.

That adds up to about 10,000 editions I’ve been a part of publishing, minus about seven days sick time and a few weeks’ holidays here and there (though not so much in the past decade).

How does one possibly comb and convey some of the acres of memories sown from being a member of a publication’s staff for a third of its 124-year history?

With a merciless application of editing economy, not to mention a profound respect for the average reader’s time constraints in 2024.

Our impromptu foray to Quiet Lake almost four decades ago had been prompted by Nielsen’s sudden resignation as Brian Mulroney’s deputy prime minister over various policy disagreements.

Nielsen had left Ottawa without commenting. National news organizations had been flooding our local newsrooms with demands for information on his whereabouts.

In what today would be commonly acknowledged as an outrageous invasion of the veteran MP’s privacy, the Star and CBC chartered the aircraft – and off we soared into our Quiet Lake adventure.

Our exasperated visages upturned at Nielsen’s deck, our repeated pleas that he appease the wonderment of millions of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, were all to no avail.

“I have nothing to say. Will you please go? How many times must I ask?” Nielsen thundered at us several teams.

Defeated, we flew back to Whitehorse. I wrote the relatively non-eventful encounter on a laptop on the half-hour flight home and filed it for the Star early that afternoon.

Most editors will freely acknowledge that most of their career fun ensued while they were reporters, rather than displayers of the editor’s traditional green visor.

It’s the unvarnished truth ... such as the day in August 1983, when Conservative government leader Chris Pearson, four cabinet ministers and myself landed at Stokes Point, northern Yukon, overlooking the Beaufort Sea.

The intent was to securely plant a billowing Yukon flag, lest any of the rare visitors to the region grew confused about what territory or state ruled that majestic land.

Leave it to me to unearth frowns and controversy during an ostensibly happy occasion, of course.

Noticing a garage as part of an abandoned DEW Line station a few hundreds metres inland, a government official and I jogged over to it. Sliding open the door, my eyes fell squarely on a huge Bombardier all-terrain vehicle, proudly plastered with Gulf Petroleum’s familiar blue and orange logo.

Gulf had authorization to do some testing of the sea floor to determine how much dredging would be necessary should it obtain a federal permit to build a temporary deepwater port; not to infringe upon the delicate tundra.

A few scribblings jotted down in the Star notebook, a few clicks of the camera, and the succeeding 24 hours produced a very embarrassed Gulf public relations official speaking from Alberta – and one high-profile national news item.

The bemusing stories were nimbly balanced by issues downright grave in nature.

Unbelievably but true, members of the Ku Klux Klan arrived in late 1981 intending to set up a Whitehorse chapter.

I reported on it, and after the editor of the day opted to publish the address of the downtown house the newcomers had rented, a sizeable rock sailed through their living room window.

They soon fled south, riven by failure in their gross quest to stir unrest.

It’s a good thing they got across the Yukon River Bridge at Marsh Lake when they did.

As 1982 dawned, a freight truck slammed into the frigid, brittle structure, knocking it out of commission for an extended period.

Electrical outlets were set up so city-bound commuters could leave their vehicles on the south side, walk across the bridge, and get into a second vehicle on the north side.

In early 1984, a Yukon NDP MLA tipped me off about unsavoury behaviour within the territory’s RCMP ranks.

A very senior figure in the detachment, now deceased, had imbibed in the basement mess, then unwisely chose to try to drive home.

He slid off the South Access Road and into the ditch. A rookie officer who happened by and took a look was curtly told to “move on,” in famous police jargon – and to stay tightlipped about what he had seen.

The senior officer’s “situation” was quietly attended to, with no one in the public the wiser.

The MLA and I worked our police contacts for the next week, learned more details, and felt safe enough to publish.

Several days later, I picked up a jangling newsroom phone.

“Jim Butler? This is Robert Kaplan, the solicitor general of Canada calling. I understand you have some concerns about one of the senior members of the RCM Police in Yukon!”

There followed the solicitor general’s grave pledges of a thorough investigation of what I’d reported – and the semblance of another national news story.

My early years here also encompassed the infamous June 1982 murder at the Taku Hotel, which is now the retail/office building at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Main Street.

I headed over to the greasy spoon the morning of the slaying to see what I could surreptitiously learn.

Apparently, a man in his 20s had returned his early-morning breakfast plate to the cook with a complaint that his eggs were cold.

The cook angrily doused the food with Tobasco sauce and slid it back out. The diner walked into the kitchen to confront him.

The cook seized a knife and fatally stabbed him.

Late in the morning, just as I was finishing the story, the RCMP released his name.

Claude Aubé.

The occupier of one of the bedrooms in the basement of the Wheeler Street house where I’d also rented a bedroom upon relocating to the Yukon from Québec the previous year.

It was the harsh journalism lesson that pursuit of a routine story can instantly slam you with the impact of absentmindedly stepping on the proverbial hoe on the lawn. It helps make some scribes wise; others, otherwise.

Journalism affords one a unique and privileged window perch on what makes a community tick, thrive and fail, sometimes during the same day.

It has enabled me to interview every government leader/premier in Yukon history, and most prime ministers, or past or future prime ministers, since John Diefenbaker. (Exceptions: Lester Pearson and Stephen Harper.)

I’ve been able to converse with such global luminaries as Princess Anne; Robert Runcie, the late Archbishop of Canterbury; and Marc Garneau, during his astronaut days.

In the fall of 1982, I covered the simultaneous closures of the Faro lead-zinc mine, the United Keno Hill Mine at Elsa, the Whitehorse Copper Mine and the White Pass railway.

Months later, still in the days when reporters could build direct contacts with government officials, I broke the story that YTG, as it was then known, would order its employees to stay home every second Friday without pay.

The government appealed to Ottawa for emergency funding to simply survive, and several thousand jobless Yukoners had no option but to leave the territory for good.

I reported on the francophone community’s dogged quest to obtain a simple French-language elementary school from a recalcitrant Conservative government, which later launched into roars of fury after the Trudeau Liberals tried to impose official bilingualism on the territory.

I witnessed a grim Chris Pearson announce in October 1984 he was leaving politics in the wake of internal agitations for his job as Conservative leader.

Two months later, a sea of doubt and consternation prevailed when the Yukon land claim agreement-in-principle failed.

Travelling near Sheep Mountain one Sunday in May 1985, I came across the tangled wreckage of an airplane that had crash-landed on the Kluane Lake ice, resulting in a dramatic front-page photo the next day.

The next night, I was in the hall when exuberant New Democrats celebrated the election of the territory’s first NDP regime.

The September 1985 death of popular Conservative MLA Andy Philipsen after his truck rolled on the Dempster Highway was a particularly emotionally jarring story to cover because he’d been an extremely likeable figure.

Two years later, I was in the scrum of the jammed, steamy Yukon Indian Centre gymnasium the night of July 20, 1987 when Audrey McLaughlin, the future federal NDP Leader, won the byelection called to succeed Nielsen.

By the night of June 21, 1991, I was at the editor’s desk when the capital narrowly missed being evacuated as the Haeckel Hill forest fire smoked, crackled and menaced. CKRW was providing listeners with live, up-to-date information and opening its lines to callers as the spellbinding drama unfolded.

In November 1991, Air North’s Joe Sparling had to circle over Whitehorse numerous times after the nosewheel on his DC-4 jammed in the retracted position. He landed safely.

By 1992, the old Federal Building had been demolished and was replaced with today’s gleaming edifice at Fourth and Main. The 1950s-era old Whitehorse General Hospital was prescribed a similar fate a short time later.

Many years of frustrating, on-again, off-again land claims negotiations finally yielded the 1993 agreement that signalled Indigenous Yukoners’ concerted emergence as full partners and economic and social forces in the territory’s evolution.

Spectacular fires destroyed vintage hangars at the Whitehorse airport, and the beloved SS Tutshi sternwheeler in Carcross.

The succeeding decades brought devastating floods and fires all over the territory; numerous city, territorial and federal elections; court cases involving appalling violence or outrageous financial or fraudulent shenanigans; multi-fatality collisions on the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse and in Kluane, and on the Dempster Highway.

A soaring meteor stupified the territory in January 2000, and Sept. 11, 2001 brought unprecedented panic and confusion to the capital as emergency personnel braced for the landing of a Korean Airlines plane initially believed to have been hijacked.

Reporter Jason Small informed Yukoners in late 2002 that they would soon go to the polls – a full day before premier Pat Duncan confirmed it. His was the scoop journalists lust for.

The territory lost such famous citizens as Elijah Smith (who I’d had the privilege of interviewing for a 1987 territorial byelection), Harry Allen, Nielsen, former senator Paul Lucier, Pierre Berton, Ted Harrison, Johnnie Johns, and a host of former premiers and mayors, including Flo Whyard, Don Branigan and Bill Weigand.

Yukon governments gradually began taking in federal transfer payments that enabled them to table budgets that are today in the $2-billion range.

The money has sparked an explosion in gleaming, multimillion-dollar capital works projects, a proliferation of public programs and a civil service of unprecedented strength and proportions.

Whitehorse grew from a placid small town to a vibrant city with clusters of carved-out subdivisions, inhabited by a demographic diversity evident on virtually every street one might choose to saunter on.

COVID-19 and the opioids tragedy have presented governments with the most severe tests of public policy I have witnessed here.

On the lighter side, fields of newsprint and shipfuls of ink have been expended on decades of blanket coverage of the former Sourdough Rendezvous and the Yukon Quest.

In 46 years in newspapers, one cannot evade the threats that grew into routine incidences as the years passed.

Most were so legally groundless, if not patently preposterous, that I politely advised the disgruntled parties to transform their potential legal fees into donations to local charitable organizations.

A CKRW radio station executive once urged the Star’s managing editor to dismiss me for incomptence after I published a story reporting that CBC Yukon was clobbering his station in Bureau of Broadcast Measurement morning show ratings.

The leader of a territorial political party organized an evening meeting of local business owners to fruitlessly urge them to boycott purchasing advertising in the Star because of his negative perceptions of our election coverage. (Hint: he wasn’t leading the Liberals nor the New Democrats.)

A man convicted of sexually abusing a child phoned me to ask that I refrain from publishing his name because of the implications on his employment. Of course, that was a request that could never be granted.

Another man who had committed unspeakable acts on a child at the civic swimming pool shuffled into my offfice at noon one day to complain about our previous day’s story on his sordid behaviour.

At that moment, I was under extreme deadline pressures assembling the pages reporting the preceding day’s municipal elections.

I grew crimson with rage and was transformed into the worst brand of bellowing monster of the full 43 years in the Star building as I threw the S.O.B. out – and justifiably so, I say to this day. It was the sole occasion on which I truly lost it.

One summer, the police scanner at my right elbow reported, “Shots fire at … – the address of the home my late wife and I had purchased two weeks earlier and had yet to move into. It was another example of how the news can suddenly strike the news provider to the personal quick.

In the news business, yesterday’s bright fire is today’s ashes, from which the next attention-snaring story must rise and prosper.

I could go on and on with streams of anecdotes of varying interest and importance, such as sharing laughs with Helen Klaben, the survivor of 49 days in the Yukon wilderness after her 1963 plane crash.

However, a more fruitful gesture would be preserving the paper and the ink for the reflections of the past friends and colleagues I’ve been honoured to have worked with, found on other pages of today’s special edition.

Like the captain who descends with his ship, I soberly go down amid a sea of balled-up newspaper pages.

I once claimed the opposite side of this unfortunate equation, so today have come full-circle.

Living in west Québec on Aug. 27, 1980 and working for Ottawa’s Citizen, I received a 6 a.m. call from an assistant city editor.

“The Journal has died. Can you come in right away?”

The rest of that grim day was spent interviewing tearful, shell-shocked newsroom, production and circulation department employees of the vaunted Ottawa institution that had just suffered a ruthless corporate assassination – as we at the Citizen got to live on and flourish in ad lineage, circulation and profit margins.

Recently, my thoughts have wandered back to those former Journal folks as I now enter the same experience they did.

Still, I have staunchly believed that gratitude is the best attitude.

And so, with profound gratitude to those who paid generous attention to our efforts at the Star over the decades, I’m gone, as are these historic pages.

Thankfully – and much more importantly, dear readers – you are not.

Illegitimus non carborundum.

Comments (2)

Up 2 Down 0

Doug Caldwell on May 23, 2024 at 10:20 am

This is a wonderful synopsis of some of the milepost moments in our shared history here in the Yukon. The Star and its various reporters chronicled much of what made us what we are today. As another former scribe for the Yukon government, I too read each edition to confirm the messages were what was intended to be shared with Yukoners. I bought a lot of advertising for various departments which allowed me to work with Michele, her mom and the many others who helped us to inform the public. Vince was a fixture for the paper and was often the oracle I consulted to learn what was happening in town each week -he had to shoot much of it. Yes it the end of an era and I am pleased I had some opportunity to work with the people of the Whitehorse Star in sharing our collective history. My thanks to each of you!

Up 7 Down 0

Jan Brandjes on May 20, 2024 at 8:52 pm

Hi Jim Butler. Your article was a 'memory lane' for me. I was working in 1983 for Dennis Singer at Public Affairs on contract with YTG. I wrote press releases for Bea Firth, Danny Lang and Andy Philipsen (Tourism, Economic Development and Justice). Had regular contact with you in those days!! A couple of years later, The Star did a story on a potential tourist attraction by the name of 'Fort Schwatka. Think it even made the front page! I moved in 1995 to Melbourne, Australia but have been reading the online version of the paper. Don't know if you remember some of the above, now 40 years ago! Thanks for the memories. Jan Brandjes

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