Former Yukon premier named Officer of the Order of Canada

Tony Penikett was appointed to the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette for "his contributions as a teacher, negotiator and public servant, for his human rights activism."

Tony Penikett receives honour for 'contributions as a teacher, negotiator and public servant'

Former Yukon Premier Tony Penikett was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

Yukon's first NDP premier is about to become an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Tony Penikett is receiving one of Canada's highest honours for "his contributions as a teacher, negotiator and public servant, for his human rights activism," according to a news release from the Governor General's office. 

He will receive the honour, along with the 60 other Canadians being appointed to the Order of Canada, at a future date.

Penikett was first elected as the MLA for Whitehorse West in 1978, became the leader of the Yukon NDP party in 1981 and served as premier from 1985 to 1992.

In the 1985 general election, his party won eight seats and he formed a minority government. The small government caucus had the distinction of being the first one in Canada in which half the members were Indigenous and the other half were non-Indigenous.

"It was a unique group in the sense that half of them, half of us had backgrounds in the mining towns of the Yukon and the other half were in leadership from the First Nations communities," said Penikett.

His government is remembered for having negotiated and signed an umbrella agreement for First Nations land claims as well as being the first government to negotiate Aboriginal self-government agreements in Canada.

He said the governor general's citation also includes his government's adoption of the Human Rights Act, which Penikett said was "very controversial at the time."

Penikett was first elected to the Yukon legislature in 1978. Members of the 24th Legislature of Yukon are pictured here. It was the first time MLAs organized themselves by political parties. (Yukon Archives)

Motivated by people

When asked what drove him, Penikett said that as a kid growing up in Yukon in the '60s and '70s, what was obvious to him was that "most of the poor people were Aboriginal and most of the Aboriginal people were poor. And that was because governments had severed their connection from the land."

He also had a background in the labour movement, working on occupational health and safety issues for mine workers.

"I've always had those two kind of preoccupations, which I think came from my childhood," he said.

Penikett also said that he was motivated by the bullying a young classmate experienced.

"She obviously came from a very poor family and came to school in the same ragged dress every day. And I remember she was not only bullied by other students, but also bullied by teachers. And I've never forgotten that, the anger that I felt about it and my shame in not saying anything about it.

"So as a young adult, I started to try and talk about those things and do something about them."

Fascination with the North

Penikett says he's always held a fascination with the North and its people.

He's traveled extensively across northern Canada and several other northern countries, including those in Scandinavia.

"And I got to see the things that Yukoners had in common with those people, the conflicts and resolving the conflicts between settlers and Indigenous people, the challenges of being governed from great distances far away in national capitals, often thousands of miles away, which is a problem Alaskans share."

He said much of what's good that's happened in the North in the last 50 years are the result of "real efforts to reconcile between settlers and Indigenous people."

Writing and walking

Since the pandemic, Penikett says he's been spending eight to 10 hours a day writing and a couple of hours walking.

"I gloriously simplified my life," he said.

"And I'm fine with that."

Although he's published two books Reconciliation: First Nation Treaty Making in British Columbia and Hunting the Northern Character, he says he doesn't know if what he's writing now will ever get published.

"That's ok, because I've enjoyed the process."