At the last of the Transients’ Weekly Suppers this year, one of the special speakers at the event made reference to the Commissioner’s Residence and the upcoming Tea and Ball, which take place there. At the word “commissioner”, blank looks passed over the faces of those summerdoughs who were here from Outside for the first time. And, you know, explaining that our Commissioner’s role is more or less the same as a Lieutenant Governor in the provinces only helped a few of them to understand.
The notion of an official gathering hosted by a dignitary of that rank, to which people are invited to attend by simply walking off the street, is quite outside the experience of most people, but it’s entirely the norm at the Commissioner’s Tea, which will take place here on June 12 between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
It’s not as if agents of the Commissioner roam the streets compelling them to come in, to use a Biblical turn of phrase, but the sight of hundreds of people, with several dozen of them in early twentieth century period costume, tends to be quite a drawing card.
The notion of teas at the Commissioner’s pad, as former incumbent Ken McKinnon used to call it, goes back to when George and Martha Black held court here in the nineteen-teens. Of course the Res went through some changes after that period as Dawson’s glory diminished, being called into service as a hospital and an old folks home, among other things.
For quite a while it was mostly an empty building, seemingly destined to decay and crumble, as most Yukoners seemed to think Dawson would after the capital was moved to Whitehorse.
Thirty-eight years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the territory’s founding, the I.O.D.E (as it was still known then) was inspired to have a community tea on the lawn and veranda of the Residence. In the course of time they were joined in this endeavor by Parks Canada, and thus the custom has continued to the present day, come rain or come shine.
It’s a tea with lots of that beverage as well as coffee, lemonade and heaps of fancy baked goods donated by many of the kitchens in the community and served by folks in period costumes.
There are speeches by the Commissioner and by the local leadership of the IODE (as they prefer to be known now), and the superintendent of the Klondike Historical Complex.
It is one of the two times of the year when the Commissioner’s Awards, presented for Public Volunteer Service Bravery are given out.
This year will probably be the last year of Geraldine Van Bibber’s term of office, five years having been the length of service ever since the aforementioned Mr. McKinnon’s unusually long nine-year term.
The Commissioner’s Day, as this is now often called, concludes with a fancy dress ball, held at the Palace Grand Theatre and sponsored by the Commissioner’s Office and the Klondike Visitors Association. This is a formal affair, which used to be a banquet as well as a ball, but austerity kicked in a few years back and we nearly lost it altogether in the mid-1990s. These days, the tickets cost a bundle and the food is more of the fancy snacking kind.
Tourists perch at the Old Post Office to get an eye- and camera- full of fancy evening clothes. There are a few speeches, but this is more of a socializing evening, with a dance band and the works.
I go there each year if I’m in town, to report on the event, but I only attend in costume every other year or so. Eventually my three piece dayware suit (suitable for a reporter) and my wife’s ball gown will reach the point where it wouldn’t have been cheaper to rent togs, but we’re not there yet.
I always make it to the Tea, however. Of the two events, it’s the one I prefer And besides, it’s free!