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Partisanship allegations fly over new Yukon electoral reform commission

Commissioners Jessica Lott-Thompson and Jean-Sebastien Blais say they are able to do their jobs without favouring any political party.

Yukon Party MLA says past political involvement raises concerns about impartiality

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers says he's concerned the territory's Liberal government is trying to game a commission on electoral reform. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Yukon's new electoral reform commission is supposed to examine all facets of the territory's democracy: everything from voting systems, to the way political parties operate, to the degree of civic engagement.

But the commission is already facing allegations from the Yukon Party that it's being rigged to favour the governing Liberals.

Monday's announcement of the commission's three members — chair Jessica Lott-Thompson, and members Bev Buckway and Jean-Sebastien Blais — have done little to temper the Yukon Party's complaints.

"It undermines the confidence in the impartiality of this commission," said Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers, the party's democratic institutions critic. 

"To have a commission made up of people with a partisan background that is selected and appointed only by the governing Liberal Party is not only unfair but should be concerning to Yukoners about what exactly the Liberal government may have in mind for changes to the the electoral system of the Yukon."

Donations and volunteer work

Lott-Thompson donated nearly $2,800 to the federal NDP between 2011 and 2014. She also ran as the party's candidate in Mississauga South in 1997 and served on the federal riding association during her time in Nunavut.

But Lott-Thompson also serves as the director of the Yukon's human rights commission, and has worked as an election observer in Ukraine for the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe.

In an interview Tuesday, she said she gave up all involvement with the NDP when she was hired at the human rights commission and has never been involved with any political parties in Yukon. She said she disclosed her full political history when she applied for the electoral reform commission.

Jessica Lott Thompson, the chair of the Yukon's new electoral reform commission, says she gave up partisan politics when she was hired as director of the territory's human rights commissions. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Blais' LinkedIn profile lists him as the federal Liberal Party's policy chair dating back to 2014. He has also donated nearly $1,200 to the federal Liberals, according to Elections Canada data. 

Blais said he is no longer involved with the Liberal Party. He said he has written academic papers on municipal politics and citizen engagement and attended academic political science conferences.

Blais also serves on the Yukon Human Rights Panel of Adjudicators and as a policy analyst with the Yukon Housing Corporation. He said those jobs require him to be politically neutral.

"Donating to a political party doesn't mean you apply a political lens to every file," he said.

'They wanted to dictate the process'

Premier Sandy Silver said the government consulted the opposition parties on the six top-ranked candidates out of the 20 people who applied to the commission.  "They [the Yukon Party] wanted to dictate the process," he said. "They were refusing to ... answer my questions on on the phone until I answered letters and emails."

Cathers said that's because the Yukon Party wants a formal record of all correspondence about the commission. 

Cathers said the government should have used an existing model, such as the Electoral District Boundaries Commission, or the legislative assembly's Members Services Board, which formally includes the three major parties.

"There's no good and straightforward reason for the Premier to not make those appointments at an all party manner," he said. "The only reason to do so in our view is if they're attempting to game the system." 

Concerns about impartiality

Cathers won't go so far as to say the commission is doomed to illegitimacy, but remains concerned about its impartiality.

"We would have a great deal of difficulty having confidence in the outcome of the process because of the partisan nature of the commission members," he said.

The commission's final report is due in January of 2020. Silver would not commit to being bound by the commission's findings.

"We we can commit right now to go through a thorough review of the recommendations that the commission makes and to actually consider what improvements we can make that will improve our democracy."

The next territorial election must take place before November 2021.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated Jean Sebastien Blais is a member of the Yukon Human Rights Commission. In fact, he serves on the Yukon Human Rights Panel of Adjudicators.
    Jul 16, 2019 4:06 PM CT

About the Author

Chris Windeyer is a reporter with CBC Yukon. He is the former editor of the Yukon News and was a 2018-19 Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College.