Jaime Smith, 2019.

Memories of the Yukon’s only psychiatrist: Still a Yukoner in his heart

In volume three of The Colourful 5%, Jim Robb devotes page 38 to Dr. Jaime Smith. From 1995 to 2001, Smith was the territory’s only psychiatrist. Although he lived in the Yukon for only six years, Smith and his wife, Cathleen, made the most of their time in the North and he remains a Yukoner at heart.

Earlier this year, Smith published a book called Stardust: memoir and essays by an astronomer who became a psychiatrist. The memoir, entitled Foxtrot, is a very engaging account of Smith’s life so far, from his childhood in Minnesota; his work as an astronomer in Argentina; his return to the US as a graduate student; his move to the Kootenays to teach astronomy; his time at medical school at the University of B.C.; and his work as a psychiatrist in Vancouver and Whitehorse. The memoir ends with Smith residing in Victoria where he still lives today.

It’s impossible to summarize Smith’s many experiences before he moved to Whitehorse. However, his work with AIDS patients at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver is particularly notable, as are his efforts as a member of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association to lobby for the removal of homosexuality from the organization’s diagnostic nomenclature.

Throughout his life, Smith has had an adventurous spirit. He has traveled the world and made friends at every turn. His memoir is marked by his many interests such as motorcycles, playing the viola, climbing and hockey.

When he moved to Whitehorse, Smith was 62 and had just retired from St. Paul’s Hospital. Cathleen had also retired from running the early childhood education program at Douglas College in New Westminster.

The couple settled in Whitehorse with their dog, Jake, and cat, Scrofula. They lived in Valleyview, then in Riverdale. Smith recalls that one winter while trying to unplug his vehicle during a cold snap, the plug snapped in his hand. He caught the bus instead.

Smith joined both the Rotary Club and the Legion, so he met folks beyond his medical colleagues. He also met Jim Robb, who is just one month older than Smith. Robb jokingly refers to himself as Smith’s “elder.”

“We get along together as pals,” says Smith of Robb.

I remarked to Smith that in some ways he is similar to Robb. Both are interested in folks from all walks of life. Smith agrees. He says he was drawn to psychiatry out of a desire to get to know people more deeply.

Smith also got to know the Yukon deeply.

“The whole area of the North was some place I wanted to experience,” he says.

He especially liked to travel by motorcycle. It was by this mode of transport that he went to all the communities.

“I feel for the geography of the place, how big and how isolated it is.”

Smith and Cathleen went to Old Crow, where Cathleen met Edith Josie and ultimately made a documentary film about the Gwich’in writer best known for her column, Here Are The News.

Due to Cathleen’s health, the Smiths left the Yukon in 2001 for milder climes on Vancouver Island where they would be closer to family. They bought a house in Sydney. Smith built a “Yukon cabin” in the yard, complete with a woodstove and a leaning chimney, just like in a Jim Robb painting. He hung moose antlers that he acquired from Ken Quong over the cabin’s door.

Cathleen passed away in 2011. She was a remarkable individual who Smith memorializes in Stardust as a “warrior woman.” Smith subsequently moved into an apartment he calls the Bear Cave. He tells me about the Yukon images he has on the walls, including the log highrise in downtown Whitehorse, a view looking over Lake Laberge, the start of the Yukon Quest and his motorcycle on the Alaska Highway. He has a flagpole to fly the Yukon flag on Discovery Day, and the Pride flag on Pride day.

Smith is moving to a seniors’ facility soon. He’ll be packing up his apartment and his Yukon memories, which he’ll take with him to his new home. He says he’s too old to visit the territory again, but he misses it and has many friends here.

“I still think of myself as a Yukoner.”

Stardust: memories and essays by an astronomer who became a psychiatrist is available at Mac’s Fireweed Books and online bookstores including Chapters Indigo and Amazon. Also check out Jaime Smith’s blog, karhunluola.wordpress.com, for more essays.

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