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An interview with Tony Whitford

For almost everyone who has ever lived in Yellowknife, the name Tony Whitford is synonymous with our community. Though he started his career as a mechanic in Fort Smith, it is his extensive community involvement, his 12-year stint as a member of the Legislative Assembly and his role as the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories that make him so recognizable – it also doesn’t hurt that you’ll also find him most mornings at Tim Hortons happily chatting with other regulars on a variety of topics.

We sat down and spoke with Tony about his late wife Elaine, how the idea for a scholarship first came up and his plans for the future.

Can you tell us a bit about Elaine, when you met and how she helped you with your education?

Whitford: Elaine originally came North in 1964 to work as a summer student in Inuvik after finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work. Before leaving, she met Bud Orange, the MP for the North who helped her secure a grant to assist with her continued studies. One of the conditions was that she must come back and work a year in the North and that debt will be forgiven.

So, in 1965, Elaine returned North, but this time to Fort Smith. I met her about a week after she arrived. A year later we got married.

When I met Elaine, I had a grade nine education, I had never finished high school, but I worked for years as a mechanic, and I was a good mechanic, too.

“Why don’t you consider going to university and get yourself a degree?” she said, “That’ll open a lot of doors for you.”

So, with that, I signed up to the University of Calgary. Through her help over those four difficult years, we pulled through and I got my bachelor’s degree which was enough to get me in the door with the government. I ended up doing a number of things I never dreamed of doing with her encouragement.

How did the idea for the scholarship first come up?

Whitford: When I went to University, unlike today, there were few such bursaries. I can’t recall which ones (if any) I may have received back in the day. I recall I didn’t qualify for most, for one reason or other.

Over the years since and as an MLA, I had opportunities to help change that. Today, I believe there are many more financial resources to tap into. I felt we could add to the pool of resources for Northern students from some unexpected monies I received, that is why we established the fund in Elaine’s Name. Mind you she couldn’t know we were going to establish a scholarship, but her thoughts and wishes were translated through me. I knew what she would have wanted; She would have wanted to continue helping Aboriginal people and Northerners advance their education and this scholarship could be part of that.

Can you tell me about why you decided to create the fund with the Yellowknife Community Foundation?

Whitford: At first, I wanted to do it on my own – I wanted the scholarship to go for 25 years and use it up a thousand dollars a year. Just have a bank account and leave the money in there.

I was encouraged not to do that but go through the Foundation.

Through the Foundation, the scholarship is part of a bigger pool and it works for you so it can give back much longer.

The compassion that the board members was tremendous. They understood what I was going through and they steered me gently towards a way of accomplishing what we wanted to do that fit within their mandate.

What would be your advice for someone considering working with the Yellowknife Community Foundation to set-up a fund?

Whitford: If you’re thinking about it, do it.

It’s a way to have something to remember your loved one or loved ones by that can help the entire community.

I mean I can give away a thousand bucks and its gone, but when the Foundation takes it the can do so much more with it and for so much longer.

Elaine’s legacy keeps on giving and it will keep on giving for a long time in her name. That’s the beauty of the scholarship.

Unbeknownst to her, that she would make a very positive and major contribution to education for Aboriginal people.

About the Yellowknife Community Foundation

The Yellowknife Community Foundation was formed in 1993 to provide interested individuals and organizations with a means of supporting projects in our community for the enduring future. The Foundation is not singularly dedicated to any specific area of support. It embodies a simple concept – that people working together can make a difference for all. For more information: https://www.ykcf.ca/

About the Elaine (Sweet) Whitford

The Elaine (Sweet) Whitford Scholarship Fund was established to support NWT residents pursuing post-secondary studies in social work or nursing. For more information: https://www.ykcf.ca/portfolio-view/elaine-sweet-whitford-scholarship-fund/

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