There’s a sign on Premier Dennis Fentie’s door that explains a key part of his
“Do something … lead, follow,
or get out of the way!”
Fentie chose to lead.
“It’s not a career choice, it’s a life choice,” he said Thursday in the premier’s office at the Yukon legislature.
“There are sacrifices. You must have total dedication and commitment.”
It’s almost a decade since Fentie sat on the fence in Watson Lake, trying to decide whether or not to run for office.
He was reluctant. Public life is lived under the microscope, bearing some degree of responsibility for, well, everything public.
But Fentie finally threw his hat in the ring for the 1996 Yukon election, ending a career of more than 20 years of work as a truck driver, contractor and proprietor of Francis River Construction Ltd.
His community connections — many and varied, including the chief of the Liard First Nation — were pressuring him to run, he said.
So was the Yukon New Democratic Party.
“The NDP were the party that sought my commitment,” said Fentie, now 55, the Yukon’s seventh premier since the territory adopted party politics in 1979.
“The Yukon Party had already essentially appointed a candidate.”
He ran because people asked him to; he chose the NDP because they needed someone.
“I was very up front with the NDP. They knew well my fundamental principles.
“But I did make the decision to seek the nomination for the NDP.
“I think, looking back, that was a good choice, because it afforded me the opportunity to experience the political arena.”
The NDP reigned for four years under Piers McDonald, with Fentie in the backbenches.
In the 2000 election a wave of discontent, well known to incumbent governments in the Yukon, swept the NDP from power.
Fentie’s supporters blacked the NDP logo from his campaign signs. They were voting for him, not the party.
McDonald didn’t even win his seat back, but Fentie did, and sat again as the NDP’s house leader.
The new Liberal government under Pat Duncan didn’t last long — just two years, before defections from Duncan’s caucus dropped the government to minority status.
But before the Liberal mandate ended, Fentie switched parties — not from the NDP to the Liberals, although he claims the Duncan Liberals asked him to join.
He joined the Yukon Party, with an eye on the leadership.
“I’ll be very candid about this — I recognized an opportunity and decided to take an opportunity,” he said, unapologetic.
“Peter (Jenkins) and I have talked over the years continually. We have a relationship on a personal basis,
having known each other for some time.”
Jenkins was the only Yukon Party MLA at the time, and the party’s de facto house leader.
He and Fentie worked together, and discussed Fentie’s future.
“There was a plan all along, in doing this, and much of this plan is unfolding today,” said Fentie.
“It included a collaborative approach to government, it included partnerships with First Nations, it included stronger fiscal management and redirecting investment of government resources … to create more wealth.”
With Fentie at the helm, the Yukon Party swept into power in the 2002 election, with a solid 12-member majority of the Yukon’s 18-seat legislative assembly.
His first priority was to get “a solid, firm grip” on the territory’s finances.
Fentie dissolved “several funds,” including the $10-million permanent fund, in order to increase economic stimulus through cash flow.
He quit financing the Protected Areas Strategy, which was creating an “uncertain investment climate” and “driving investment out of the territory.”
He brought in amendments to the Taxpayer Protection Act, instituted by the previous Yukon Party government under John Ostashek, to allow the government to adopt full-accrual accounting, “to fully report our liabilities.”
“The true financial picture was not being presented to Yukoners,” he said.
“The integrity of the act is still there. We still cannot go into an accumulated deficit, by law.”
It wasn’t until Fentie was in office that certain elements of his past came to light.
It was commonly known among Yukoners that he had spent time in prison for a drug charge dating back to the 1970s.
He even joked about it himself on the floor of the legislature when in opposition, saying “you have to do time in the house before serving the house.”
People assumed Fentie had sold marijuana.
But, after he became premier, the fact that Fentie was charged and convicted on two counts of trafficking heroin in Edmonton in 1975 came to light.
Fentie was 24 years old when he was arrested. He served 17 months of a four-year sentence and was paroled early, for good behaviour.
He received a full pardon.
“A full pardon gives me the right to have no criminal record and it also affords me the right to not have mistakes — which I have paid for — adversely affect my character,” he said when reporters questioned the ability of a premier with a criminal record to travel abroad.
A pardon “is not something that is flippantly handed out,” he said.
“You have to earn that.
“You earn it by taking responsibility for your actions, by being of good conduct.
“I’ve paid my debt to society and I’ve moved on.”
Indeed, the federal Criminal Records Act states that, once pardoned, a crime “should no longer reflect adversely on the applicant’s character.”
Whether or not the sins of the past come back to haunt politicians is a choice for voters to make — as they will, this year, before the end of November.
But Fentie’s experience with the Canadian justice system — and the black market — undoubtedly molded his personality, and those influences are apparent in his political style.
For example, in debate Fentie’s language often takes on a legalistic tone.
Whenever questioned about Yukon Party ethics — which he has been many times over the last three-and-a-half years, especially over the expulsion of Jenkins for failure to repay a government loan and the resignation of former Copperbelt MLA Haakon Arntzen whom the RCMP charged with indecent assault — Fentie challenges his detractors to table their “evidence,” to “provide the burden of proof” and, most famously, to “make the accusation.”
“It’s put up or shut up,” he explained, spreading his hands.
“That’s how I handle it.”
Likewise, his past experience peeks through in his assertive approach to negotiation.
Fentie is an adept deal-maker. Whether listening to constituent concerns at a town hall meeting or signing memorandums of understanding with Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, Fentie thrives on being The Man, the one you see to get what you need, the guy to get the job done — the leader.
Critics cried foul when he signed a one-off bilateral deal with the Kaska Tribal Council in 2003, to split control and revenue of resources in the territory’s southeast corner with the associated First Nations that were without federal land claims settlements.
The deal was needed to keep the economy of the region humming, he said.
Similarly, opposition members bristled in May 2005, shortly after the legislative assembly finished debating the territory’s annual budget, when Fentie authorized an extra $3 million for a feasibility study to examine the business case for joining railroad systems between Alaska and British Columbia.
The federal government had hummed and hawed over the project for too long, and Alaska was prepared to move forward with federal and state dollars.
So Fentie sidestepped Ottawa, chipped in without debate, and let his critics wail.
Despite his cozy relations with Alaska — he’s far more willing to talk with Murkowski about railroads and pipelines than he is about protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — Fentie is a staunch federalist, with a goal to see Yukon take its rightful place in the Canadian dominion.
Perhaps his proudest moment as premier came shortly after he took office, when he and the rest of Canada’s premiers walked out of talks with then-Prime minister Jean Chretien over an unfair health funding deal.
“All jurisdictions should be delivering comparable services and programs to their citizens, regardless of where you live, and that’s the case we made on health care,” he said.
“The standard delivery of health care was not happening here because of the Canadian health transfer approach by the then-federal Liberal government.
“We managed to change that by getting an arrangement that created the funds known as the Territorial Health Access Fund and the Northern Health Accord.”
Finance is a touchy subject for Fentie.
He once declared that “I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to jeopardize this territory’s financial future.”
A self-described “capital democrat, not a social democrat,” he believes a sound economy is the basis for all prosperity.
“Without a strong economy contributing, the social challenges increase dramatically.
“That’s part of the vision that I had. If we could be more effective in creating a strong economy in the Yukon, we could also be more effective in dealing with our social challenges.
“I have, by upbringing, a very heightened social conscience.”
His vision includes a pair of natural gas pipelines snaking into the North to tap the Yukon’s fossil fuel wealth, a railroad carrying Yukon ore to ports in Skagway for shipment to the Pacific rim, and even lower unemployment than the current 4.9 per cent.
Opponents criticize this vision for its lack of environmental protection.
Fentie simply isn’t worried.
“What we are obligated to do under land claims will give us all kinds of conservation and protection overall.
“The Yukon is one of the leaders in the country, when it comes to land base that is being protected and conserved.”
Now that he is where he is — poised on the brink of an election, with a government reduced by two seats — Fentie is banking on economic prosperity to carry him back into office.
Many question the propriety of his government — or any government — taking credit for global economic forces that have rekindled investment in the Yukon’s mining sector — an increase of perhaps $100 million in annual exploration since the Yukon Party took office, which Fentie cited as recently as Thursday morning during a Canadian Chamber of Commerce address in Whitehorse.
“We’ve never stood up and said as a government that it is all because of what we’ve done,” he said.
“But it had to start somewhere. And it started with financial management and increased stimulus in the territory.
“Once you create that, it creates optimism, which creates a higher level of certainty and comfort for investment.”
This is the third of a three-part series profiling Yukon political leaders.