The Legend of Billie Bylaw

Very tall — maybe six feet or more — blonde and fast. Very fast. Some said she was also a nimble climber, when necessary.

For about a decade in the 1970s and ’80s, Wilma “Billie” Yrjola, known and remembered by almost anyone who lived in the city then as Billie Bylaw, kept order in Yellowknife. Even now, she remains firmly in our collective memory, a slightly divisive figure — staunch and determined to do her job, but recognized even by her natural enemies — scofflaws, ne’er-do-wells, or just those a little late paying their bills — as a ‘great lady.’ Some say that we could use someone like her around today.

“Yellowknife’s newest addition to the bylaw department gets more respect than the men on the force,” reads the lede to a newspaper article introducing Wilma “Billie” Yrjola to the city in May 1978. Granted, the tone of the piece harkens back to a less progressive time, with much focus on how she was treated in her workplace despite being — gasp — a woman.

The 32-year-old, originally from Espanola, a small town in northern Ontario, had come here by way of Vancouver, having worked in law enforcement both on the west coast and in Toronto. Here in Yellowknife, she lamented to the paper, she missed not having a firearm or at least a billy stick in her role with the bylaw department.

Nonetheless, she liked her job and she liked the city. And she made an indelible impression on its citizens. Columnist and artist Walt Humphries, who painted the image above, tells of one typical scene:

One day in the spring, as people were going in and out of the Miner’s Mess, a commotion broke out across the street at the Post Office. People were shouting and a woman seemed to be in distress. Billie was nearby and waded into the thick of it. The woman had gone into labour — her water had broken. They got her into a car, because that was a lot quicker then calling an ambulance.

Billie stepped out onto Franklin to stop traffic so the car could head to the hospital.A big old pickup was coming along and the driver wasn’t paying attention. By the time he saw Billie, he slammed on his brakes and, tires squealing, started to slow down. He stopped, with Billie’s hands on the hood. Everyone gave a collective sigh of relief and the car with the very pregnant woman in it was away.

The driver of the trucked looked shocked. Billie just shook her head and walked back to the curb. As people milled about someone said “She could have been run over.” An oldtimer replied, “Not our Billie, she’s one tough gal. She would have grabbed that truck by its bumper and flipped it onto its roof.”

When it came to the roads around town, Billie definitely was the law — as many drivers remember clearly. She doled out traffic tickets and dutifully ensured that they were paid up — a task she took on with fervour, but we’ll get to that later.

Hans Nolting, who moved to Yellowknife some 47 years ago, remembers Billie wanting “to be a real, hard-core cop.”

She was known for, among many things, meticulously measuring the distance between a vehicle’s tires and the curb, and handing out a ticket if you were too far away. But she didn’t always win, says Nolting.

My favourite story about Billie Bylaw was: my brother and I both owned businesses here. I had a glass shop and he had the wreckage yard next door. Both of us had been working 24/7 and we said ‘Let’s go fishing.’

He had a boat on the trailer in his yard and he said, ‘Let’s go throw some jerry cans in the back of the boat and go get gas.”

So we drove down to the gas station, and bylaw is behind us with lights flashing. We thought it wasn’t necessarily for us, so we kept going. Bylaw was still behind us. So, we pull up to the pumps and she came up behind us.

Now, there were no paved roads, no streetlights, no traffic light.

My brother starts gassing up the truck and she comes out and says, ‘Hey you, what do you think you’re doing? You can’t pull that trailer with no license plate — that’s a ticket for sure.’”

So, my brother goes up to the front of the truck and flicked on the bubbles. Now it was an active tow truck, he can tow anything he wants to.

She just looked at him, shook her head and walked off.

Walking away wasn’t something Billie did often. Certainly no one in town was allowed to walk away from paying for their traffic infractions. Many people recalled visits from Billie with a bundle of unpaid tickets, even receiving a ride downtown to pay up.

Sue Glowach had a visit like this, and it was one she never forgot.

I don’t know why, but for some reason I fell behind on my traffic tickets. Billie served subpoenas in the evening — it was a separate part of her contract — and I’d bought this old trailer, it was a 1964 Atco trailer and one of my luxuries in life is a bathtub. The place I bought didn’t have a bathtub. It had a living room in the middle with a woodstove and a bedroom.

So, I went down to Weaver and Devore’s and got a metal bathtub.

I would set the tub up in my living room and fill it with hot water and bubbles and it was this lovely once-a-week experience. But it was a hassle, so I would take full advantage of this, with my wine and bubbles.

Nobody locked their doors at this time. So, I was just getting into this fabulous bath, and I hear, ‘Sue.’ And knocking on the door. The next thing I know, there’s Billie, standing in my living room. She says ‘Oh hey, you’re home.’

I’m just ducking down into the bubbles and she’s standing there, saying if I wanted to talk about this she could wait.

I couldn’t get out of the tub because there was nothing around me except the wood stove.

She said ‘We really need to talk about the fact that you didn’t pay your parking tickets.’

I was like ‘Okay, I’ll pay my tickets,’ sinking down and trying to cover up in the bubbles.

It wasn’t exactly an option to discuss it or leave. She had a captive audience. To this day, I’ve never had an unpaid ticket since.

There are some who resented her, as will happen with any authority figure, but even this town’s most grizzled characters still speak of Billie with a kind of awed respect. No one could bust up an out-of-control bush gathering quite like ol’ Billie, or face down a horde of boozed-up bikers with no-nonsense panache. Says one longtime carouser who wishes to remain anonymous:

Billie busted me so many times. Shut down so many good times. But it wasn’t like today. There was a sort of mutual respect. We were tough guys but she put the fear of god into us. And she kind of made us feel like we were being jerks, if we were being jerks. I remember one time she started cleaning up the place after she shut it down. And then the guys just kind of joined in and we all were picking up bottles and emptying ashtrays together… When Billie showed up the party was over, but you know, a lot of times it was time for that party to be over.

Longtime Yellowknifer Carla Wallis says everyone growing up in town at the time has a memory of Yrjola.

She could run like the wind, that one… and climb. As youngsters around here in Yellowknife, you just never got away from Billie Bylaw. None of us could out-run her or out-climb her.

I so remember her sitting about 10 of us down at the Mildred Hall playground, drilling into us the dos and don’ts of throwing rocks on the road. We were playing a cool game I thought, but apparently not so cool when a vehicle drives by and you smack the window and break it.

She was the law here back in the day.

Her reputation for intimidation seems valid. As well as her height, Robin Sproule, a kid during Billie’s reign, remembers the bylaw officer for her stern visage. She rarely smiled, says Sproule.

When you’re young and foolish, she could be a bit intimidating. She looked tough but I think underneath she was pretty soft. She cared about the city, she cared about people.

Corey Dressler also has vivid childhood memories of Billie. He remembers her driving a big Caprice Classic station wagon around town.

I remember as a kid, riding around Yellowknife on my BMX with a number of friends driving on sidewalks deliberately, while looking for her to chase us. We were always too fast and knew all the shortcuts to everywhere in town.

It wasn’t until later as a teenager that my family and I moved to Calgary, I used to ride the LRT and never, ever, paid a dime. The one time I was caught riding the trains, I thought I’d seen a ghost. There she was: Billie Bylaw, More than happy to finally catch me.

She could have written me a huge fine, but she totally let me off.

That’s just one of several sightings of Billie since she left Yellowknife in the early ‘80s for Calgary, where she became a transit officer, though no calls made to listings for Yrjola were returned, and attempts to track down any images of her aside from Humphries’ painting have come up blank.

A Yellowknifer story from 1997 chronicled her move into the fitness world (while describing her as “part Norm Peterson, part King of Kensington”). Billie’s athleticism was well-illustrated during her time in Yellowknife, not only in her pursuit of lawbreakers, but her participation in various sports, as well as an aerobics show on the community access channel, according to one social media source.

Then 51 years old, Billie was the “world record holder in masters powerlifting with a combined squat, bench and deadlift of 355 kilograms.” Her goal at the time was to reach a 500-kg lift. Best wishes, and we hope you reached that goal wherever you are, Billie.

Culture

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