John Parker, N.W.T. commissioner who quietly shed power, dies at 91

As commissioner from 1979 to 1989, John Parker played a key role in transferring power from Ottawa appointees to elected officials. ‘He was a great leader,’ says his friend and colleague Bob Pilot. 

'He certainly had a vision of where the territories were going to go,' recalls Bob Pilot

John Parker leading MLAs of the 11th legislative assembly in their oaths in November 1987. (CBC )

Above all else, the N.W.T. commissioner from 1979 to 1989 will be remembered for one thing. 

"John Parker was the one that really introduced the handing over of power from the executive office to the elected representatives, in other words, the legislative assembly," said former colleague Jake Ootes. 

Parker died in Sidney, B.C., on Monday. He was 91. 

Parker took over the job from the charismatic Stuart Hodgson. 

"When Stu left, a lot of people thought they'd be leaving a vacuum in the territories, but it didn't happen," said Bob Pilot, who worked as Parker's deputy commissioner. "John was there to pick up immediately."

Pilot describes Parker as a great boss.

"A very unassuming man, but he was a great leader."

The 8th Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Back row: Bryan Pearson, George Barnaby, William (Bill) Lafferty, John Steen, William (Billy) Lyall, and Ludy Pudluk. Front row: Arnold McCallum, Donald (Don) Stewart, David Searle, Thomas (Tom) Butters, Peter Ernerk (now Irniq), Deputy Commissioner John Parker. (NWT Archives/©Northwest Territories. Legislative Assembly fonds/G-1979-014)

Alberta-born engineer

Parker was born in 1929 in Didsbury, Alberta. He trained as a geological engineer and worked in Uranium City, Sask., before moving north to run the short-lived Rayrock Uranium mine. 

He served as a Yellowknife city councillor and mayor before becoming deputy commissioner under Hodgson in 1967. He served out Hodgson's entire term, eventually taking the reins himself. 

Parker was part of the Carrothers Commissions, set up in 1963 to study the future of government of the N.W.T. 

"After the Carrothers Commission, he formulated what he thought and what he felt the territories should end up looking like," Pilot said. 

"He certainly had a vision of where the territories were going to go." 

'Architect of Nunavut'

Parker visited every N.W.T. and Nunavut community except for Port Burwell (a former outpost now in Nunavut), Parker told the CBC in 2013. 

"In some respects," Pilot said, "he was the architect of Nunavut." 

John Parker gives at a speech outside the Museum of the North in Yellowknife on opening day, July 6, 1973. (NWT Archives/John H. Parker/N-1979-014)

"He felt that if the time was right, there'd be a division for the territories and that Nunavut would be the logical name."

Parker played a role in negotiating the N.W.T./Nunavut border, part of which is called the Parker Line. A small protrusion known as Parker's Notch was also named for him. 

"He left his mark," Pilot said. 

Out with the desk

By 1979, the executive council of the N.W.T. was a wholly elected body, with Parker electing no longer to sit with councillors. 

Former MLA Charles Dent remembers moving John Parker's desk out of the legislature shortly after Dent was elected in 1991. 

"He could have still been sitting in that desk in the assembly when I got elected and I think many other people who'd been commissioner would be," said Dent. 

"Removing that desk from the assembly was only made possible through Mr. Parker's push for the development of responsible government." 

As for actually hauling the desk out the door: "We just decided it was one of those vestiges from the colonial past it was time to get rid of," Dent said. 

John Parker, left, with Jake Epp and Ewan Coterill at the Dene National Assembly in Fort Providence in August of 1979. Parker served as the N.W.T. commissioner from 1979 to 1989. (©NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau /N-1995-002)

'They were great dancers'

David Searle, one of the first officials elected to what would become the N.W.T.'s legislative assembly, worked with Parker for 12 years. 

"I was an advocate of responsible and representative government from the day I was elected and he supported that," Searle said. "As much as he could, being part of the bureaucracy and working for Stu, who didn't support representative government at all."

Searle also remembers Parker as a details man. 

"He was the engineer who implemented all of Stuart's grand projects."

One example is the Museum of the North, now known as the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, which was Hodgson's last major project. 

"Stuart would have been involved in the details, but John was the engineer who got into the real details." 

Searle and Parker swapped babysitting services when either went on holidays with their wives. They remained friends in retirement in B.C. 

"I have a vivid memory of John and Helen Parker polkaing in the Elks Hall. They were great dancers and they used to jump up at the first sign of a polka," Searle said. 

"I'll miss him very much." 

John Parker with his wife, Helen, and daughter Sharon at home in Yellowknife in December of 1958. (NWT Archives/Henry Busse fonds/N-1979-052)

A mentor

Parker maintained his love of the north all his life, donating $100,000 to the Yellowknife Community Foundation in 2013. In recent years, he took some grandchildren on a trip to the High Arctic and Eastern Arctic. 

George Tuccaro was commissioner of the N.W.T. from 2010 to 2016. 

"He was my mentor," Tuccaro said. 

"He was the last commissioner to hand down the power, as it were, for the commissioner they had back then, and turn that power over to the legislative assembly of the N.W.T. and he'll always be remembered for that."

Parker is survived by his wife, Helen Parker, and two children, Gordon and Sharon, as well as several grandchildren.