Jim Smith: A Venerable Statesman Looks Back

by Jane Gaffin

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The 93-year-old former top Yukon administrator Jim Smith was awarded an honorary degree from Yukon College at graduation ceremonies May 11, 2013 in recognition of the eminent capacity he served in developing the Yukon Territory.

In his honor, and to offer a sense of the miraculous achievements of a “working stiff” whose career led to his appointments as Yukon Commissioner and Chairman of the Northern Canada Power Commission, I have resurrected my article “Jim Smith: A Venerable Statesman Looks Back”.

This mini-biography, in which he shared wisdom candidly, was originally published in the Yukon News, June 19, 2000.

Please note the vast difference between government’s attitude in his day than what it is now.

Today, politicians and bureaucrats are not behaving enough like public servants. And it would behoove both to seek commonsense advice from a man experienced in dealing with the same decision-making matters that he faced earlier and that they are wasting time complicating today.

At the time of the interview, Mr. Smith was 80 years old; a former boss, once minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND/pronounced di-and), Jean Chrétien, was the Liberal Party’s Prime Minister of Canada.

Politically, Jim Smith was always a Conservative, although it was widely assumed he was a Liberal because he received his political appointments and worked mostly with Liberal administrations in Ottawa during his tenure as the Yukon’s principal bureaucrat.

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“Life is a wonderful learning experience,” mused ex-commissioner Jim Smith, relaxing in the downstairs sanctum of his Whitehorse home.

Pictures and paintings and plaques, hanging alongside the Order of Canada and long-service awards, are testaments to his rich and rewarding life as a businessman, politicians and government administrator.

From humble beginnings as owner of a small Davies Street meat shop in downtown Vancouver, the Burnaby High School graduate rose to become the Yukon’s chief executive officer in 1966.

Since serving 10 years as commissioner, the 80-year-old retired statesman has seen drastic changes in the role of government.

“The government I was put in charge of, and what was expected of government–by both my political masters and by the public in the Yukon–bears no resemblance to the government the public of the Yukon is looking for today, and what the political masters in the Yukon and Ottawa expect government to do here.”

He’s grateful to have been part of the former regime, though his reign was somewhat akin to working inside a pressure cooker.

In those days, the commissioner’s authority carried the weight of the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He could not afford the luxury of letting down his guard for one minute, whether dealing with people or signing documents.

“You made sure you had a good knowledge about whatever you were talking about,” advised Mr. Smith, who managed to serve a long tenure without stepping into any bear traps. “One false move and you could crucify yourself. You had to have your homework done on everything. There was no room for error.”

Although he appreciated his three ministers, Arthur Laing, Jean Chrétien and Judd Buchanan, they didn’t always trowel a smooth path for him to tread.

One of Chrétien’s infuriating refrains was to intone into the phone: ‘Whatever your request, Jimmy, the answer is no, but I’ll listen to the argument.’

“I began to question my sanity,” chuckled Mr. Smith, amused about the exasperation he felt while serving from 1968 to 1974 the man who (at the time of the interview) was Canada’s prime minister.

Mr. Smith found the toughest part of the commissioner’s job was to balance the needs of the Ottawa-based political masters and the needs of Yukon citizens, while keeping peace with the 12-member elected territorial council.

“Government is geared to provide what you and I would normally call ‘public services,’” said Mr. Smith.

He has very serious reservations about the current idea of government attempting to be all things to all people under all circumstances at all times.

“Government today is constantly accused of not doing enough and of never doing anything right. It’s simply because government is trying to do too much,” he stressed.

One of the few specific ministerial directives he ever received came from Arthur Laing, who was named first minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development when the department was established by an act of Parliament in 1966.

Namely, Laing expected Mr. Smith to create a climate in which private enterprise could thrive.

“His attitude was that government should involve itself in providing proficient infrastructure–roads, schools, airfields–to encourage investors to come here to invest money in the country.

“It wasn’t government’s role to take the place of investors.” The government never was involved in the economy, he noted.

Budget headings reflected nothing that even remotely intruded into the business sector of the territory.

“What we did here roughly 40 years ago collectively–as the political arm of government, citizenry and business community–was very appropriate to the times.

“I question very much if what we are doing today is appropriate to the times.”

The vast majority of the residents live here because they want to, he added. “Somehow or other we all have to have bread on the table, clothes for our back, roof over our head, education for our kids and a chance for a future.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case here today, said Mr. smith, who encouraged his own daughter and son to seek their futures outside the place for which he holds a deep-rooted passion.

When Mr. Smith was growing up in British Columbia (B.C.), the son of Scottish immigrants, there were no indicators that he would one day be rubbing shoulders with royalty, governor generals, prime ministers and cabinet ministers.

He was born in New Westminster on December 31, 1919, the only child of a blacksmith who had plied his trade before the First World War in mining and logging camps along the B.C. coast.

All of his schooling was in Burnaby. When he entered high school, weekends and summer holidays were spent learning the meat trade in a nearby shop and over on Vancouver Island at Duncan.

After graduation, he opened his own shop in downtown Vancouver.

One day, Andy Watson, a salesman from the Swift’s meat-packing plant, told him about a customer from Atlin, B.C. staying over at the Devonshire Hotel. Louis Schulz owned a general store and was looking for a meat cutter.

“Where is Atlin?” asked Jimmy Smith of the Swift’s salesman. Once enlightened, he went to see a potential employer. They struck a deal.

The young entrepreneur devolved himself of assets so he could move to the northern town, sight unseen.

“I was a fugitive from the Depression and very happy to leave the city.” He packed his possessions, including a violin he’d enjoyed laying in the Vancouver Junior Symphony, and set off on a new adventure in 1940.

He was nearly 21 when he took passage on the Princess Norah to Skagway, Alaska, and the White Pass train to Carcross, Yukon. From there, one of George Simmons’ Northern Airways planes delivered him to his primitive destination, which was still reminiscent of the 1898 goldrush days and would be without a road until 1949.

Soon, he met Dorothy Matson who was born, raised and educated in Atlin. She was employed in Clarence Sands’ clothing store.

The couple was married by agent George Hallett in the courthouse section of the government building on October 28, 1942.

“You might say we got married when the work was done in the fall, the last boat was in, all the freight put away and everybody was ready to hunker down for a long winter.”

While everybody was of the opinion that Atlin would rebound after the Second World War, it didn’t happen.

Over in Whitehorse, the four partners Ed Barker, Jack Elliott, Irvin Ray and Wardie Forrest had bought Charlie Baxter’s farm, which is now the Yukon Inn property. They had set up a tourist operation.

Forrest, who travelled to Whitehorse for Kelly Douglas, a grocery wholesaler, scouted out the Smiths, who accepted the offer as manager of Tourist Services.

The Smiths moved from Atlin to Whitehorse in July, 1947.

Tourist Services proved to be a very successful business venture that operated out of an old army building. The company provided a manager’s house on the property until the Smiths could build their own place on Cook Street in 1951.

By 1954, the four partners sold the Tourist Services complex to Bruce Sung, a Chinese businessman based in Vancouver. To him and his cadre of associates, the next step was to have Poole Construction build a spacious facility to house a modern supermarket around 1957.

While working as general manager, Mr. Smith was president of the Board of Trade several years in the early 1950s. In turn, he became interested in the city government.

His first elected term as alderman was 1956-57. He sat on council with aldermen Gordon Cameron (who preceded Smith as Yukon commissioner), Bill Drury and Jim Hanna.

Gordon Armstrong, the first Whitehorse mayor, had been reelected every term since the first civic election in 1950.

To Mr. Smith, the decision-making process used in the 1950s seems outwardly to be the same one city council is using in the 2000s. “It’s inadequate,” he said, suggesting the internal method of how administration brings forth information needs to be improved so councillors can at least make defensible decisions.

Mr. Smith was reelected to council in 1958. But the term was cut short when a citizen legally challenged the election’s act. Mr. Smith didn’t run again. The evening and luncheon meetings, held three to four times per week, were proving too much of an imposition.

Instead, several of his business buddies convinced him to run for a three-year term as territorial councillor in 1958. He won his riding of Whitehorse West and sat with politicians such as John Livesay, Haines Junction; George Shaw, Dawson; Ray McKamy, Mayo; and Charlie Taylor, Whitehorse South.

Fred Collins was commissioner.

The councillors met in a magistrate’s courtroom in the old federal building on Main Street. “It was a good learning experience,” recalled Mr. Smith, who turned full attention back to the butter-and-egg business after fulfilling his commitment in 1961.

Life puttered along until the Sung organization made overtures about selling out. At about the same time, the commissioner’s slot had been vacated by Gordon Cameron. Minister Arthur Laing appointed Jim Smith to the position on September 27, 1966.

The Smith family was expected to move into the commissioner’s residence on Kluhini Crescent in Riverdale. Every New Year’s Day, they graciously flung open the doors to host the Commissioner’s Levee.

They had no private life. It was a rarity for the family to sit down together for dinner more than twice a week. Every Monday morning, Mr. Smith’s secretary, Marie Slater, sent the First Lady yet another long list of her social duties for the coming week.

“Oh, yes, the job had a profound affect on the family and we paid a very high price,” continued Mr. Smith. “But we gained a lot, had some wonderful experiences and met a lot of very nice people, too.”

So, he harbors no regrets.

He served with three top-notch ministers with whom he–and sometimes his wife Dorothy–traveled off-continent to Russia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Europe.

Incredibly, he was on his common route between Ottawa and Whitehorse when the plane he was on was hijacked. It was 1974, and Mr. Smith has thanked the Lord more than once that his wife and kids weren’t along to witness that horrible ordeal.

The commissioner was homeward bound on a milk run. One stop was in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After take-off, the three stewardesses bustled up and down the aisles serving a meal.

A well-dressed man about 40 years old grabbed a stewardess by the nape of her hair, dragged her down into the seat and drove the blunt prongs of a dinner fork into her face under her eyesocket.

Mr. Smith, who was seated too far front to see the stabbing, heard the chaos and saw the pilot emerge from the cockpit. In awhile, the captain announced over the intercom that a passenger had requested the aircraft be diverted to Cyprus.

First, the plane had to refuel.

The Boeing 737 landed at one of the Saskatchewan airports en route. A horde of Mounties and plainclothesmen swarmed the orange Canadian Pacific jet within seconds.

The pilot managed to talk the would-be hijacker into releasing his prisoner, then escorted him to the front door into the waiting arms of the police.

In the finale, the flight crew carried on to Vancouver with the permanently disfigured stewardess on a stretcher attended by a medic.

It was later learned the foiled hijacker, a landed immigrant from Greece or Turkey, was sentenced to eight years in jail and deported from Canada.

Immediately following this high drama, CP Air, and most other airlines, replaced their elegant metal cutlery with plastic utensils (which didn’t really fit the airline’s five-star Empress theme).

That incident had no bearing on Mr. Smith’s desire to quit as commissioner. He’d had enough. For several years, Chétien had ignored him until Judd Buchanan was minister of DIAND.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Northern Canada Power (NCPC) commission was stepping down in Ottawa. Buchanan asked Mr. Smith, who had once been on the NCPC board, to assume those duties in Whitehorse.

While life is a great learning experience, sometimes there is no justice.

Mr. Smith accepted chairmanship of NCPC while also commissioner, on the understanding that his successor was only a matter of weeks away. However, the potential candidate didn’t pan out. Mr. Smith ended up serving in two powerful, high-profile posts for almost a year.

Mr. Smith was visible on the front lines in Whitehorse, taking flak about everything from power-rate increases to mismanagement of the Aishihik dam project.

Buchanan left the minister’s portfolio in 1976. The new crop of six ministers ran the gamut from one who was a chronic abuser of pills to another who was later criminally charged and tried for abuse of a public position.

To top it off, the ministers wanted to extend political favors. They meddled with the board’s decisions without a hint of concern about economics.

“This was the kind of garbage that ruins Crown corporations,” scoffed Mr. Smith, in reference to NCPC’s ultimate demise in 1986.

“Crown corporations should be eliminated as quickly as possible on the general premise that they’re not allowed to run really as businesses. They are simply instruments of government policy.”

While NCPC was a tough job, made tougher without a decent minister, he, amazingly, viewed NCPC as a relief after running the territory for 10 years.

The big bonus was the family’s return to a normal private life.

“NCPC was a learning experience,” reflected Mr. Smith who doesn’t have any regrets about it. “But, in hindsight, I think I could have done something for that last 10 years of my working life that I would have had a lot more enjoyment out of than I did with NCPC.”

To use one of his favorite expressions, ‘all’s well that ends well’.

Now, it’s at his pleasure he keeps a sharp eye on the fickle world of politics from his private domain, without having to shoulder any more heavy weight of responsibility.

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