North·Analysis

5 things to watch in the Yukon Legislature this fall

As the Yukon Liberals hit the two-year mark as government, the opposition will take them to task on everything from carbon tax to group homes.

Carbon tax, youth group homes and affordable housing likely on the agenda

The fall sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly begins Monday afternoon. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Yukon's Liberals, under Premier Sandy Silver, head to the government benches on Monday to begin the fall sitting of the Legislative Assembly.

This year marks 40 years since the territory adopted party politics — a system which measurably increases the accountability of a government.

The next territorial election is still three years away, but in the meantime, the opposition Yukon Party and NDP will do their best to hold the government to account — in hopes of forming the next government.

Here are five issues we can expect to dominate question period and debate this fall. 

1. Carbon tax 

This issue will once again be front and centre, with Silver holding firm in his support of the plan which comes into effect in January.

That's three months away, and Yukoners still don't know exactly how a carbon tax will affect them.

Placer miners will be exempted, as will the aviation industry. But what about the small business in Beaver Creek or Mayo, where owners must rely on fossil fuels to ship their goods? What about residents in Burwash Landing or Ross River who need to travel to Whitehorse for services, but with no options for public transit?

Across Canada, the ranks of premiers who back the federal plan is thinning, with Alberta's Rachel Notley the latest notable defector. Saskatchewan is pursuing a legal challenge, backed by Ontario. If the Conservatives form a coalition government in New Brunswick, we can expect another detractor.

Canada's premiers pose for an official photo at their meeting in St. Andrews, N.B., in July. The ranks of those who support the federal carbon tax plan are thinning. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Silver may find it increasingly lonely in his corner, and the Yukon Party — firmly opposed to carbon pricing — won't likely let go of this bone during the next eight weeks.

2. Children in care 

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost took a lot of heat last spring for what can only be described as a debacle.  

When several youth who were in government care stepped forward to complain about their treatment, Frost did not immediately champion their pleas for help, but instead believed her officials who assured her all was well.

Yukon Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost publicly apologized last month for how some youth have been treated at territorial group homes. (CBC)

Then, last month, the government issued an official apology to the youth and the public. An assistant deputy minister also resigned.

But questions remain, and Yukon's Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Commissioner is still investigating. Two official complaints of reprisal have been filed under the whistleblower legislation.

Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay will eventually table her report in the Legislature — which means Yukoners will be able to read her findings. In contrast, the report done for the government by a B.C. labour lawyer has not yet been made public and likely never will be.

We can expect the opposition to grill Frost more on this file.

3. Hunting and inherent rights

Another file that lands on Frost's desk — she's also the environment minister — is the botched hunting permits lottery that unfolded last summer. It pales in comparison to what awaits Frost now.

The Ross River Dena Council's assertion of unceded, inherent rights as enshrined in Chapter 35 of the constitution propels the Liberals to the forefront of a dilemma that will require the greatest political dexterity. Silver's campaign pledge to conduct respectful government-to-government relations with First Nations is about to undergo a serious test.

On the one hand, the First Nation has a strong argument for exercising authority over its traditional territory. On the other hand, non-First Nations hunters can argue that Yukon laws, passed by the Legislative Assembly — in this case, the Wildlife Act — must take precedence.

The North Canol Road starts on the north side of the Pelly River, at Ross River, and continues to the N.W.T. border. The area is popular for hunters, and it's also in the traditional territory of the Ross River Dena Council. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

How will the government resolve this one, without either enraging some Yukoners or abandoning their virtue when it comes to First Nations?

4. A cranky contracting community

On the campaign trail in 2016, the Liberals vowed that things would improve for Yukon businesses under their watch. Contractors were hopeful.

But last spring, the premier backed off on liquor tax increases after a scathing email to Silver from a popular Whitehorse bar and restaurant was leaked to CBC.

This fall, Yukon contractors complained after an N.W.T. company was given a $904,000 government contract to work on the new Francophone high school in Whitehorse. The government's clumsy defence then further infuriated contractors.

Public Works minister Richard Mostyn eventually stepped in, cancelling the contract, and apologizing. 

Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn took some heat last month for the government's decision to award a lucrative contract to an N.W.T. firm. Mostyn later cancelled the contract. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

This affair isn't over though — although the territory is using one of its $1-million exceptions under the interprovincial trade agreement, the rest of the school's design-build contract may provoke more trouble for Mostyn.

5. Health, housing and the government's bank account

The new Whistle Bend extended care facility will alleviate pressure on hospitals, where many beds are occupied by seniors in need of long term care.

But Yukon's aging population means there's also an increasing need for assistance to "age in place," — a principle the Liberals have espoused. There's a need for home care and for affordable housing for seniors.

Whistle Bend Place, a continuing care facility in Whitehorse, will see its first residents move in this month. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Affordable housing is also an issue for non-seniors too in many Yukon communities. The Yukon government had to resort to asking its health department staff to open up their spare rooms for incoming staff at Whistle Bend, a sign of desperation.

But the facility was already well under construction when the Liberals took office two years ago, and Whitehorse was already experiencing a housing crunch. What did the government think was going to happen? 

Opening up new residential lots in the Whistle Bend subdivision is helpful, but hardly addresses the need for affordable housing. An empty lot can cost about $200,000, and it's likely to expect another $400,000 to that bill to build a house. If $600,000 looks like affordable housing to you, you're not in my tax bracket. 

And speaking of the cost, CBC has learned that cabinet has instructed all deputy ministers to find savings in government departments — saving up to two per cent in ongoing operations and maintenance costs.

That sound you hear is pencils being sharpened in all finance departments.

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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