North·YUKON VOTES 2021

Yukon parties debate economic policy in chamber of commerce debate

The debate, which lasted over two hours, saw questions focused mainly on economic issues, posed by industry groups like the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the First Nation Chamber of Commerce.

First Nations procurement policy early point of contention in 2-hour debate

Economic development minister and Liberal candidate Ranj Pillai, left; Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon, centre; and NDP Leader Kate White took part in a debate organized by the territory's chamber of commerce Tuesday night. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon politicians faced off Tuesday night in a debate organized by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce.

The debate, which lasted over two hours, saw questions focused mainly on economic issues, posed by industry groups like the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the First Nation Chamber of Commerce.

Parties grappled with procurement policy, the future of tourism, and the territory's recovery from COVID-19.

"This election is about who Yukoners trust to lead this territory out of the pandemic, and into … a prosperous future," said Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon.

"Too many small businesses have suffered," said NDP Leader Kate White. "We need a government that gets what people are going through…. We need a government that's pro-people."

While the NDP and Yukon Party were represented by their party leaders, the Liberals sent their minister of economic development and mines, Ranj Pillai, who is running in Porter Creek South.

"Our economy, and our record of keeping people safe, are the envy of this country right now," Pillai said. "Our team has a lot of people who can put the puck in the net."

First Nations procurement policy debated

One early topic of contention was Yukon's new First Nations' Procurement Policy.

The new policy guarantees advantages to Indigenous-owned businesses as they compete for government projects, with the goal of increasing participation to 15 per cent of awarded contracts.

Pillai said the policy is sound and has laudable goals.

"This policy advances reconciliation and ensures procurement processes are undertaken in accordance with Yukon First Nations' final agreements," he said.

A construction worker in Whitehorse. A new procurement policy that aims to increase the number of government contracts awarded to First Nations businesses was an early point of contention in the debate. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Dixon said he agreed with the policy's goal, but not the policy as written.

"The unfortunate reality is that the way the policy was rolled out, the lack of communication and consultation with the business community, and the lack of any sort of implementation plan, has resulted in some division," he said. "I think that what needs to be done here is, we need to put this on hold."

White said a territorial NDP government would definitely keep the policy.

"We will implement it. We're committed to the First Nations procurement policy. You know, the unfortunate truth is that the Liberals mishandled the communications of this policy. And then when they mishandled that communication, the Yukon Party sowed fear within the contracting community and business community," she said.

"But really this benefits everyone."

Housing in focus

Another question focused on Yukon's growing issue with housing affordability and a lack of commercial space.

"Housing is critical," said White. "In 2011 … it was critical."

"People can't afford to live here right now."

In addition to working with First Nations to open up more land, White committed to capping rent increases, "so that your staff can see what's coming."

The neighborhood of Whistle Bend in Whitehorse. Parties debated how to increase the housing stock and create space for future development. (Claudiane Samson / Radio-Canada)

Dixon also promised to "develop settlement land" through "mutually beneficial partnerships" with First Nations, including rural plots that are currently hard to come by.

Pillai pointed to Yukon's rapid population growth as one reason why the Liberal government's "significant strides" — including Yukon's largest-ever land lottery — have not had as much impact on affordability.

Pillai said the Liberals would develop 1,000 new lots in the next five years, and pledged to clean up a Whitehorse industrial area to create more commercial space.

Support for mining industry

A question from the Yukon Chamber of Mines focused on the territory's attractiveness to mining investment.

Pillai touted the government's previous record in gaining support from industry and First Nations for changes to legislation and regulatory processes.

But White criticized past governments for failing to actually update mining legislation or develop land-use plans after devolution and the signing of the Umbrella Final Agreement with First Nations.

"Not updated legislation creates uncertainty. Not creating land use plans creates uncertainty," she said. "It's not about speeding up First Nations governments, it's about respecting them."

Dixon said the next government will have "a lot of work to do to regain confidence in the Yukon." He committed to mandating timelines for project approvals, in consultation with First Nations.

The cost of power

Another topic of discussion was utility rates in the territory, which Dixon called "unsustainable."

"This is an issue where we can all see a lot of finger pointing, whether it's the Yukon Party or the Liberals or whomever," Dixon said.

And indeed, Pillai accused the previous Yukon Party government of putting the energy corporation in a financial hole by failing to raise rates for years.

"The credit card had been run up," he said. Pillai said he'll follow the Yukon Chamber of Commerce's advice to introduce predictable, manageable rate increases at regular intervals.

A view of the spillway at Yukon Energy's Whitehorse generating facility. The rising cost of power was the focus of one question in Tuesday's debate. (David Croft/CBC)

Dixon said he'd also work to introduce a "much smoother set of increases over the next few years, so that Yukoners, and especially Yukon businesses, aren't faced with … unsustainable rate hikes." 

In her response, White focused less on business, sharing the story of a senior from Dawson City.

"She was so worried, on her fixed income, about her bills that she didn't know if she should put on the kettle to have a cup of tea," White said.

White committed to using Yukon government funds for new energy investments, rather than rate increases.

In all, candidates responded to 21 questions in what White called a "marathon" debate.

Organizers say they intend to post the entire debate online.

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