North·Analysis

5 things to watch during the Yukon election campaign

A look at some of the major issues that the political parties will focus on in the weeks leading up to voting day, Nov. 7.

Carbon tax, economy, First Nations relations, health care, resource development

Capstone's Minto mine is now the only operating mine in Yukon. The Conference Board of Canada has said Yukon's economic outlook is the 'bleakest' in Canada. (Pelly Construction Ltd.)

It's week one of the 2016 Yukon territorial election campaign, and the parties are already rolling out elements of their platforms.

That will continue, and Yukoners can expect the rhetoric to fly fast and thick.

Here's a look at some key issues likely to dominate the campaign leading up to voting day, Nov. 7.

Carbon tax 

The hot air around a possible carbon tax this election could be enough to heat several large public buildings.

Although it's not a new issue (the Northern premiers made their concerns well known earlier this year, and that displeasure manifested again during the premiers meetings in August), recent developments have catapulted it onto centre stage.

Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski announced the election call last week in a Whitehorse grocery store. He said a carbon tax would raise the cost of living for Yukoners. (Dave Croft/CBC)

The federal government's announcement this month that all jurisdictions will have a carbon tax by 2018 is a red flag for the Yukon Party, which has seized on the issue to attack the Liberals and the NDP. The spectre of a new tax has been raised to instill alarm in voters' minds and the Yukon Party will use it as a wedge issue, in particular against the Liberals, whom it accuses of rolling over to the dictates of Ottawa. 

The federal government has already said it will "work with territories to address ... specific challenges" associated with carbon pricing — and federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reaffirmed that provinces and territories will use the revenues "as they see fit." 

But it may be difficult for voters to pare down to reality with the rhetoric flying. The irony is that whoever forms government will need to work with Ottawa on carbon pricing, in order to make sure Yukon gets the best deal possible. 

Economy/jobs

As always, jobs and the economy will constitute the bread-and-butter of the campaign.

Focusing on the financials is a slippery slope for the reigning Yukon Party though; the Conference Board of Canada says Yukon's economy is the worst in the country right now, with further drops in the gross domestic product (GDP) forecast over the next two years.

Yukon employment statistics reflect an equally grim picture: the August figures put Yukon at 7.8 per cent unemployment, higher than the national average of 7.0 per cent. 

The territory has a real paucity of private sector jobs, with but one operating mine (Capstone's Minto mine) still in production. 

That leaves government capital spending as the main economic driver — never a healthy situation — and one that opposition parties say is exacerbated by outsourcing the big government government projects (the new F.H. Collins school, the hospital expansion, Whistle Bend extended care facility) to non-Yukon companies.

Premier Darrell Pasloski has said "this election isn't about the past five years, this election is about the next five years."

That may be the safest line to take when the rearview mirror reveals an unflattering economic picture.

First Nations relations

This is without a doubt a major sore point for the Yukon Party — and it's a wound that both the Liberals and NDP hope to turn to their advantage. 

Court cases between the Yukon government and First Nations have contributed to a pronounced antipathy towards the Yukon Party.

Three Yukon First Nations filed suit in Yukon Supreme Court last October against the federal government over amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act (YESAA). (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Federal legislation, such as Bill S-6 (which amended the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, or YESAA) prompted a lawsuit from three Yukon First Nations, after a prolonged and bitter fight. 

Premier Darrell Pasloski enthusiastically supported the bill before last fall's federal election, then abruptly changed his tune when the Trudeau Liberals were elected, saying it was federal legislation, and tried to wash his hands of any Yukon involvement. 

But both former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt have said, on the record, that Pasloski specifically pushed for the four amendments to YESAA that First Nations rejected.

Then there's Pasloski's dog whistle: "democratically elected governments will make decisions on public lands," a line he used in reference to both Bill S-6 and the Peel Watershed land use plan (which the Supreme Court of Canada will hear in March).

That whistle clearly telegraphs the Yukon Party's ideology when it comes to self government agreements. And while it's aimed at the Yukon Party base, First Nations also got the message, loud and clear.

Winning this demographic will be an uphill battle for Pasloski and the Yukon Party.

Health care, mental health, extended care

Yukon's aging demographic means that health services for seniors and the availability of extended care are hot topics for anyone who's elderly, is approaching their retirement years, or has a parent or relative who may need care. 

The lack of extended care beds is at near-crisis level: the Yukon Hospital Corporation acknowledged that many of its hospital beds are occupied by people who should be living in a long-term care facility.

The corporation rushed ten extra beds at the Thomson Centre into service to help offset the immediate need, and points to the Whistle Bend extended care facility as the long-term solution (expected to open in 2018).

What started as a 300-bed facility met stiff resistance, so now the Yukon Party calls it a "150 bed" facility, ignoring the fact that its design actually calls for a second phase of 150 beds.

Some Yukon seniors have balked at the thought of moving to an enormous facility, in particular elders in the rural communities.

"When we were kids they took us away" to residential school, said one Kaska woman in her 60s. "Are they going to take us away again when we're old?"

Meanwhile, there's a chronic lack of "on-the-ground" mental health services. The Yukon government finally released a mental health strategy last spring, but it did little more than offload the delivery of services to First Nations and NGOs: there was no provision, for example, for extra mental health nurses or community workers.

Expect the party platforms to focus heavily on mental health delivery and also bear in mind that solid advances in this area won't come cheaply. Mental health specialists are costly — but the alternative costs much in human misery.

Resource development and fracking

​There's no getting around the fact that what little private sector Yukon has is heavily resource dependant. And that's a problem when commodity prices are in the toilet. The Yukon's economy contracts and government becomes the only game in town.

The Yukon Party makes no bones about the significance of mining, and its support for the industry. The Liberals also support the resource industry, including the development of conventional oil and gas deposits.

The NDP stop short of endorsing any oil and gas development, saying alternative energy should be pursued instead. 

Gas wells like this one dot the landscape of northeastern B.C. (CBC)

And that brings us to fracking. Yukoners will hear much about fracking during the next four weeks, and it's likely the issue will almost always be raised by the NDP. 

The NDP will use it as their "wedge issue" against the Liberals, and will continue to accuse Liberal leader Sandy Silver of supporting a moratorium on fracking.

Silver has said unequivocally that "there will be no fracking under a Liberal government." But nevertheless we can expect the NDP to be unrelenting in their focus on fracking during the campaign.

The real elephant in the resource room is, of course, government court battles with First Nations, which (rightly) scares the bejeebers out of mining investors. 

Consider that the traditional territory of the Ross River Dena Council has been under a staking moratorium for the last several years with no clear end in sight.

That Kaska territory holds some of the richest mineral deposits in the Yukon.

That's just one example of the cost of battling First Nations over resource development. And that gets us back to those other key issues — the economy, and First Nations. 
        
    
    
    

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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