This site will work and look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.
A passion for the North
Tony Whitford traded in his mechanic tools for a career as a politician.
Tony Whitford (BSW’77) works to better the lives of Northerners.
Some days that task is daunting. But as the now 64-year-old has learned over his varied career (which includes stints as a mechanic, power plant operator, marriage counselor and politician), there’s a trick to enacting change: “It’s like eating an elephant. You take one small bite at a time. ”
Whitford, the eldest surviving son of six children, grew up with his grandparents and single mom in Fort Smith, a community of about 2,500 in the Northwest Territories. Born into a family of homesteaders who made a living farming, trapping, and “using their hands,” as a youngster Whitford aspired to be a mechanic. “That’s where my expectations were. I liked the smell of engines and oil.”
He made a living as a mechanic, earned enough money to buy land, build a house. Then he met the woman who would become his wife, Mary Elaine Sweet. She encouraged him to earn a university degree, and Whitford, who had left school at the end of grade nine, received his grade twelve equivalent, then convinced the University of Calgary to give him probationary status in the Faculty of Social Work. Four years later, in 1977, Whitford earned his Bachelor of Social Work.
At his graduation, Stuart Hodgson, then-commissioner of the Northwest Territories, offered the convocation address and spoke to a group of northern students at a small gathering afterwards. “He told us that we should return to the North and help build our communities,” said Whitford. “His words stuck with me.”
Whitford did return North, and eventually, his passions turned to politics. He was elected to the legislative assembly in 1988, and was appointed Commissioner of the Northwest Territories earlier this year. “Little did I know at my graduation that I would one day have the job of commissioner,” said Whitford, who likens his role to that of a provincial lieutenant-governor with the exception that he represents Canada, not the Crown.
He now travels throughout the territories, and hopes to inspire other northerners to get involved in their communities. “Politics and leadership were always things someone else did. Northerners didn’t participate. It was always the white people who did. Now we are changing that.”