The Northwest Territories lost an historic figure this week as John Parker, former commissioner and mayor of the City of Yellowknife died March 9.
He was 91.
Parker is survived by his wife Helen, daughter Sharon, son Gordon as well as six grandchildren.
He spent his final years living in Sidney, B.C. but spent most of his professional years in the Northwest Territories from the late 1950s to the 2000s.
The Office of the Commissioner of the NWT confirmed Parker’s passing this week. Former commissioners Tony Whitford and George Tuccaro remembered his legacy as a champion of northern governance.
“It is a great sadness in announcing the passing of John Parker former commissioner and former Mayor of the City of Yellowknife,” said Tuccaro. “He was my mentor when I was a commissioner (2010 to 2016) and I had a great deal of respect for John Parker. ”
Parker first came North from Alberta in the ’50s to work as a geologist and soon got involved in local politics as an alderman for the City of Yellowknife. He served as mayor from 1963 to 1967 before being appointed to the Carrothers Commission that eventually brought responsible government to the NWT.
Throughout the ’70s, under the NWT’s first in-resident commissioner Stuart Hodgson, Parker served as deputy commissioner before taking over his boss’s role from 1979 to 1989.
Whitford, also a former commissioner, worked under Parker as an executive assistant in the late ’80s. He said it was in that decade that Parker should be remembered because of his insistence that the powers of the commissioner’s role be devolved to the then Territorial Council (now legislative assembly).
Today the role, which is currently occupied by Margaret Thom, is ceremonial and equivalent to a provincial lieutenant governor. From the late ’60s to when Parker left the position in 1989, the Ottawa-appointed commissioner was considered all-powerful, chairing the executive, introducing legislation, controlling the budget and hiring and firing employees.
“He was the chairman of the legislative assembly or the council as they called it then,” recalled Whitford. “It had lots and lots and lots of power but he surrendered that power to the elected members (in 1989). I remember the move. He left the chair or what they called ‘the ropes’ and then he sat in the gallery for a short period of time and months or weeks.
“Then he made the decision to leave the chamber completely so that there was no influence or a situation where MLAs could see their boss there.”
Tuccaro similarly recalled it as an important act for the territory’s devolution.
“It was his final act as commissioner and everyone who followed after that were more in line of a lieutenant governor than a commissioner,” he said. “He was so proud when those last powers from Ottawa were given to the Northwest Territories.”
In the 1990s, the boundary of the NWT and new territory Nunavut was established and named in his honour leading up to the Eastern Arctic territory in 1999, Tuccaro said.
“Later in his career he was involved in the division with Nunavut and was quite involved in establishing the boundary of NWT and Nunavut,” Tuccaro said. “The boundary line that they had was the Parker Line named in his honour.”
Tuccaro said when he came commissioner in 2010, he did his best to emulate Parker.
“He was a very, very, very loved person and always had time for people and was approachable and if he knew you he would say hello to you,” he said. “When I was appointed, I got congratulations from John and (wife) Helen and I told him I would do everything I can and if I came close to what he had done, then I would have done more than the best that I can. I think he was honoured by that.”
Whitford said Parker’s legacy was big enough that he should be seen as one of the “Big Three” figures in the territory’s history who ensured it had elected responsible government in the Northwest Territories. The other two were Stuart Hodgson, the first resident commissioner, who died in 2015, and Arthur Laing, former minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.
Whitford said while working for Parker, the late commissioner influenced him to run for MLA in a 1988 by-election to replace Ted Richard who was appointed to the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. It was part of Parker’s desire to have Indigenous people and young people take control of the government at the local level so that it was not directed from Ottawa.
Whitford won that election and held Yellowknife MLA seats in the 1990s and the 2000s and was later appointed commissioner.
“He was a great guy for the North and he did a lot and his memory and legacy will carry on,” he said. “His legacy certainly is, when you look at the numbers of not just northern people – but aboriginal people – he wanted aboriginal people to get involved with their government, he called it. You see it now with Premier McLeod and MLAs almost all were from native ancestry. It was like we needed to make a breakthrough and I believe Mr. Parker helped us make that breakthrough. He certainly did for me.”