40 years later, how the 1978 election shaped Yukon party politics

The 1978 territorial election was the first to have candidates with official party affiliations. 'They were looking toward provincehood, and there was a sense that if you want to become a province, you have to look and act like a province.'

1978 territorial election was first to have candidates with official party affiliations

Members of the 24th Legislature of Yukon, elected in 1978. It was the first Legislative Assembly in Yukon where members organized themselves by political party. The Progressive Conservatives won a majority of seats. (Yukon Archives)

Just weeks after MLAs in the N.W.T. voted down a motion to introduce party politics there, Yukon politicians celebrated 40 years of party politics in their territory.

A gathering of current and former politicians was held at the Legislative Assembly in Whitehorse this week, to mark the occasion.

The Yukon general election on Nov. 20, 1978, was the first in Yukon history where elected candidates were openly affiliated with a party. The Progressive Conservatives won a majority that year, with 11 seats in the 16-seat Legislature. Also elected were two Liberals, one New Democrat, and two Independents. 

Before 1978, all representatives of the Yukon Territorial Council — which became the Legislative Assembly — were considered Independents.

Yukon voters elected a PC government in 1978. 1:05

"Bringing political parties into the electoral process and into the functioning of the Legislative Assembly was not an end in itself," says Floyd McCormick, the current clerk of the Legislature.

"They were looking toward provincehood, and there was a sense that if you want to become a province, you have to look and act like a province — and that meant you had to have responsible government, you had to have political parties."

Yukon is still not a province but the 1978 election did see an immediate boost in voter turnout, McCormick says.

"If you look at the the two elections that occurred prior to 1978 — so, that would've been 1970, 1974 — voter turnout was 64, 66 per cent. When they went to party politics for the 1978 election, 70 per cent," he said.

"And it's been more than that, ever since."

A party party: Yukon politicans past and present gathered at the Legislative Assembly on Thursday to mark 40 years of party politics in the territory. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

'The Tories came out of the closet'

Tony Penikett was the only NDP candidate elected in 1978, and he later became the territory's premier. He tends to downplay to significance of the 1978 election, at least in terms of party politics.

He says candidates in earlier Yukon elections had run as self-declared Liberal or NDP candidates, even if the party affiliations weren't "official."

"In truth, the only thing that happened in 1978 was the Tories came out of the closet — because they'd always been running and elected, and they'd worked together before," Penikett recalled.

"I was involved in the territorial election in 1970, and I knew, even though they were running as Independents, I knew who the Conservative candidate was, and I knew who the Liberal candidate was."

Penikett says official party politics has been good for Yukon in at least one respect — it forces some MLAs to serve as the opposition.

"So you spend a lot of time thinking, thinking about the mistakes you made last time you were in government, but also thinking about what you might do better, what you might do when you come to government again — and that's a healthy process, in some sense," he said.  

Tony Penikett was the only NDP candidate to be elected in 1978, and he later served as the territory's premier, from 1985 to 1992. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

But Penikett argues that what was most significant about the 1978 election was that two Indigenous MLAs were elected — a first in the territory. Liberal Alice McGuire defeated PC leader and would-be premier Hilda Watson in Kluane, while PC Grafton Njootli was elected in Old Crow.

As for the N.W.T.'s musing about a move toward party politics, and away from consensus-style government, Pennikett is sceptical.

"I suspect the thinking about it goes on more in Yellowknife than it does out in the communities. And I don't think it'll happen quickly," he said.

With files from Leonard Linklater and Sandi Coleman

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