'One-of-a-kind' Doug Bell, former Yukon commissioner, has died

·4 min read
Doug Bell was commissioner of Yukon from 1980 to 1986. He died on Sunday at the age of 94. (Yukon Archives - image credit)
Doug Bell was commissioner of Yukon from 1980 to 1986. He died on Sunday at the age of 94. (Yukon Archives - image credit)

Former Yukon administrator and commissioner Doug Bell has died. He was 94.

Bell was the territory's 34th commissioner, holding the post from December 1980 until his retirement in March 1986.

"He's a super interesting guy and, you know, like a lot of Yukoners of his generation, a one-of-a-kind sort of individual," said Whitehorse author Keith Halliday, who's written about Bell.

"They just don't make folks like him anymore."

Bell was born in Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1926 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force after graduating high school at age 17. He became a wireless air gunner and was stationed at various sites in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and P.E.I. through the Second World War.

After the war, he returned to Moose Jaw and graduated as a radio operator and soon began working for the Ministry of Transportation. Eventually he was appointed telecommunications area manager in Whitehorse.

In the late '70s, Bell was elected to Whitehorse City Council and after his retirement from the Ministry of Transportation, he was appointed deputy commissioner of Yukon and then commissioner in 1980.

Bell was in the commissioner's office during a time of major transition, with the establishment of responsible government in Yukon. Until then, the commissioner's role had been similar to a premier, but after it would be largely ceremonial.

"Administrative and legislative responsibilities changed almost overnight," Bell recalled, in a 2008 interview with the Yukon News.

After the establishment of responsible government in Yukon, the commissioner's role became largely ceremonial. Here, Bell judges a bread-baking contest at the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous in 1986.
After the establishment of responsible government in Yukon, the commissioner's role became largely ceremonial. Here, Bell judges a bread-baking contest at the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous in 1986.(Tim Kinvig)

Halliday said Bell was the right man to be involved in that transition, working with the territory's new elected leaders.

"He had to work with them in, you know, the modern model, to be the figurehead, make sure everything went smoothly at elections and sort of help that take place. And so that meant that he had to work with a lot of people, and he was good at that," Halliday said.

Robert Service, and a royal visit

After retiring as commissioner, Bell would stay busy. He became publisher of the Yukon News, and for many years wrote a weekly column called "Rambling."

In 1989, he was awarded the Order of Canada, and more than 30 years later, in 2020, he would receive a similar honour in his home territory as one of the first recipients of the new Order of Yukon.

Bell with one of his successors, current Yukon Commissioner Angelique Bernard.
Bell with one of his successors, current Yukon Commissioner Angelique Bernard.(Commissioner of Yukon)

Bell loved poetry and Robert Service — the so-called "Bard of the Yukon" — was a particular favourite.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell recalled in a statement on Monday how he and Bell started the Robert Service Society and organized an annual dinner on Service's birthday.

"These resulted in huge sold-out banquets at the Westmark Whitehorse. The evenings were always filled with fun, education, and rousing entertainment," Bagnell's statement reads.

"Doug was a wonderful and very colourful Yukon character that will be missed by all."

Just a few years ago, Bell found himself in the world spotlight during a royal visit to Whitehorse, and drawing on some of his radio-operator skills of long ago.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the Yukon capital in 2016 and paid a call to the MacBride Museum. While there, they sent a royal tweet by using an old telegraph machine. Bell was the telegraph operator for the royals.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge look on as Bell sends a message at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History in Whitehorse in 2016.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge look on as Bell sends a message at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History in Whitehorse in 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Halliday, who sat on the MacBride Museum board with Bell, recalls it fondly.

"He was completely unfazed by royalty. He started talking to the Duke about, you know, asking him whether he'd learned Morse code, because of course he was a pilot in the British military. And then somehow it came up that Doug had actually met his mother, Princess Diana, at some ball in Ottawa in the '80s when he was commissioner," Halliday said.

"It just really reminded me what a fun guy he was, and how he really reached back and let you connect with things that happened so long ago in Yukon."

Flags on the Government of Yukon administration building and Taylor House in Whitehorse will be flown at half-mast for the next week in honour of Bell.