Analysis

5 highlights from the Yukon legislative agenda

This is the last sitting before the territorial election later this year. MLAs are debating the budget, the Whistle Bend extended care facility, Bill S-6 - and not always nicely.

Two weeks into the spring sitting, and tempers are already frayed

The Yukon Legislative Assembly building in Whitehorse. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

The Yukon legislative assembly has been gathered for just over two weeks now. It's the last sitting before the territorial election later this year. 

MLAs wasted no time in hauling out the big ammo to fire across the aisle.

Bill S-6 saga comes full circle

Yukon First Nations mounted a strenuous resistance to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's legislation to amend Yukon's Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act (YESAA). In particular, four amendments that they said undermined the final land claims agreements.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Council of Yukon First Nations chief Ruth Massie and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski met Apr. 8 in Whitehorse. Bennett confirmed her government was scrapping the contentious provisions in Bill S-6. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Both Harper and former Indian Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt are on the record as saying the Yukon government requested those changes.

But now, the new federal government has said it will scrap those contentious provisions.

Yukon's opposition launched a vociferous volley aimed squarely at Premier Darrell Pasloski, calling him to account, asking him to apologize and take responsibility for de-railing not just First Nations relations, but Yukon's resource investment climate. 

Pasloski did not apologize, claiming his government had no involvement with S-6.

He continues to use the "dog whistle" he's employed all along on this topic, referring to the Yukon government as the "public government," something that won't escape the notice of First Nation governments.

In the legislature, Pasloski also used a rather unusual example of reconciliation: the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, where he and Education Minister Doug Graham referee.

That comment raised eyebrows among some chiefs, who've said repeatedly that they want an equal playing field. Safe to say they didn't have a hockey rink in mind. 

Big budget, big questions

Yukon's 2016 budget, at $1.39 billion, is the territory's biggest ever.

It includes a very modest surplus of $9.4 million, and big chunks of cash for capital projects, most notably the Whistle Bend extended care facility.

The government says that facility will cost $146 million, for the first 150 beds. The government had said it would be a 300 bed facility, although you likely won't hear the health minister or premier utter that number again before the election.

Yukon's 2016 budget is the territory's biggest ever, at nearly $1.4B. (CBC)

The NDP and Liberals hammered the government to cough up details on just how much it will cost to operate and maintain the facility.

A reasonable question — after all, would anyone buy a house without considering the costs to heat and maintain it? Would you buy a vehicle without thinking about gas mileage?

Bear in mind, the auditor general's 2013 report chided the government for not considering operation and maintenance (O&M) costs when building new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City.

After admitting his officials were still "tightening up" those O&M numbers for the Whistle Bend facility, Health Minister Mike Nixon eventually contributed this: $28 million a year.

We'll see how precise that number turns out to be.

The premier often talks about "no net debt" in Yukon, while the opposition reminds him that doesn't include sizeable debt for crown corporations.

Pasloski also talks about the surplus, saying, "Yukon is the envy of Canada, with money in the bank."

Not much money, say the Liberals: the accumulated surplus dropped by $166 million over the last two years. What fiscal prudence, they ask. Where did the money go?

85 per cent of Yukon's annual budget comes from Ottawa, meaning Yukon is like the teenager living in the basement, expecting the fridge to always be stocked. You gotta grow up someday. 

NDP takes aim at campaign contributions

The NDP tabled a private member's bill this week that would fundamentally change the books for all political parties, but would likely deliver the most grievous wound to the governing Yukon Party.

The bill would cap individual contributions to political parties at $1,500, and ban them outright from corporations, unions, and any entity from outside of the territory.

A quick peek at the books from the 2011 election shows several hefty — $5,000 — donations to the Yukon Party from mining companies and corporations, both within Yukon and from "outside". 

Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson. The party introduced a bill this week to limit political campaign contributions. (CBC)

Meantime, the NDP in 2011 brought in about $37,000 from unions — so it stands to lose, too. 

The bill was greeted skeptically by the government and others. With an election on the horizon, and three other NDP bills that the party never bothered to call for debate, that skepticism may be warranted.

The NDP vow they'll call this bill for debate on May 4.

The Yukon Party didn't run a deficit in 2011, while the NDP and Liberals did.

The Yukon Liberals had one $1,000 contribution from a mining company in 2011, but the party has been beavering away to develop close relationships with the mining sector so expect that tally sheet to change in 2016.

A final note: the Yukon NDP held a hospitality suite fundraiser this month at the national NDP convention in Edmonton. Perhaps that was before they drafted this bill?

Tone in the legislature: bellicose, right off the bat

Okay, so the legislative assembly isn't likely the first place you'd think to take a child to teach them about respectful communication.

But this spring sitting has been chippy from day one.

The Yukon legislature - not exactly a model of civility and respect. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

The NDP took the premier to task for using the metaphor "punching above their weight" when talking about Yukon's efforts on murdered and missing aboriginal women. To the NDP, the premier's choice of words was "inappropriate" and "disrespectful".

Meanwhile, the Liberals noted the number of private sector jobs has shrunk under the Yukon Party, while the public sector has grown.

Pasloski then warned that the Liberals would chop teaching, nursing, and highways jobs — a fear tactic aimed at the sacred cow that is Yukon's civil service.

Pasloski also asserts that the Liberals and NDP would cancel the Whistle Bend extended care facility, whenever they ask about the project. The opposition parties say that's not true.

And finally: Pasloski seems determined to bludgeon the Liberals in this sitting, even when responding to NDP questions.

He often can't stop himself from attacking Liberal leader Sandy Silver, and in doing so, telegraphing who he sees as his main threat. 

'Winds of change' in Yukon?

There was a curious development at a contested Liberal nomination vote this week.

First, the party sold 206 memberships in a riding (Whitehorse West) that in 2011 only took 209 Liberal votes.

Even more interesting were the demographics of those lined up to cast a ballot for either polio activist Ramesh Ferris or former journalist Richard Mostyn (Mostyn ultimately won the nomination): a good many of them had defected from the other parties. 

Liberal leader Sandy Silver, with one of the party's candidates in the next election, Richard Mostyn. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

There were lifelong NDPers who said they like the Liberal "energy" and have confidence in Silver. 

Others were former Yukon Party supporters who said they don't like that party's "heavy-handed" or "ham-fisted" approach to things like First Nations relations. Some traditionally right-leaning voters said they don't like the way Pasloski's government is spending public money.

Then there's the fact that several people have left the other parties to seek Liberal nominations: former Yukon Party supporter Ferris (who's now looking for the Liberal nod elsewhere), Russ Hobbis (a Yukon Party candidate in 2011), and John Streicker (former federal Green Party candidate).  

Another notable Yukon Party defector is Darren Parsons, former campaign manager for that party in 2011, and former advisor to Pasloski. Parsons now supports Silver and says he'll vote Liberal this year.

Strange days, indeed. 
    
    
    

About the Author

Nancy Thomson

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.