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Yukonomist: The relentless math of Whitehorse

The math of the Yukon's capital city is the moose in the room
Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Back in 1956, just after the territorial capital moved up the river from Dawson to Whitehorse, the population of the new capital city was 2,570. That was 21 per cent of the entire territorial population of 12,190. There were 9,620 Yukoners living in other communities.

Flash forward to the 2021 census, and the number of Yukoners living in other communities was up by 2,411 people. The population of Whitehorse had risen by 25,631, ten times as much.

Now, 70 per cent of Yukoners live in Whitehorse.

This actually understates what has been happening. Statistics Canada has a concept called the “Whitehorse Census Agglomeration.” In 2021, this included 3,712 Agglomerites living just outside city limits in places such as MacPherson, Marsh Lake, Ibex Valley and Mount Lorne.

If you count Agglomerites, that leaves 8,319 Yukoners living outside the Whitehorse blob, and 79 per cent of Yukoners living in the Whitehorse Agglomeration.

They didn’t count the Agglomeration back in 1956, but we can presume the populations of Marsh Lake, Mount Lorne and Ibex Valley were pretty small. This suggests the possibility that the population outside the Agglomeration is actually lower now than in 1956.

Which brings us to democracy.

The 2024 Yukon Electoral Boundaries Commission released its interim report on May 10. The boundaries of our ridings — electoral districts — have not changed since 2008.

The math of Whitehorse is the moose in the room, and the commission pointed it out with some stark numbers.

If you divide the Yukon’s 31,655 electors by 19 ridings, you get 1,666 per riding.

The commission says Canadian courts generally find variations of up to 25 per cent, up or down, acceptable before it infringes on citizen rights.

Eleven of the 19 current ridings violate this judicial rule of thumb, a larger proportion than anywhere else in Canada.

Five ridings outside Whitehorse are over-represented, with fewer voters per MLA, while five ridings inside Whitehorse are under-represented. The electors-per-MLA numbers range from 2,951 in Porter Creek Centre to 188 in Old Crow.

The name of the moose in the room is Whistle Bend. Since the last map redrawing in 2008, the commission says 4,000 people have moved to Whistle Bend, most of them eligible to vote. By 2030, there could be 8,000 to 10,000 people there. That would give just Whistle Bend about the same population as all communities outside Whitehorse combined.

If the map was left unchanged, all of these people would be electing one MLA (shared with the other voters in Porter Creek Centre). The 188 electors in Old Crow would get equal representation in the legislature.

The commission’s proposal is to reduce the number of ridings outside Whitehorse from eight to six, and to increase Whitehorse ridings from eleven to thirteen. This would involve merging Old Crow’s riding with Dawson. Note also that two of the six “rural” ridings would include thousands of Agglomerites in Marsh Lake, Mount Lorne and on the northern fringes of the capital.

This will not please Yukoners living outside Whitehorse, who seldom feel the capital city needs even more say in how the territory is run. Old Crow will be a small part of a much bigger riding, much as communities such as Destruction Bay and Burwash Landing are today.

The math limits the options if you want to keep the number of MLAs to 19 and respect those judicial guidelines on representative fairness. 

There are other options, but they stretch the boundaries of political credulity.

You could add a Yukon senate to the mix, with 19 MLAs elected in the lower house by population and each community with an elected senator in the upper house. This is how the Americans and Australians do it (Canada’s senate is unelected; Alaska senate’s composition is more linked to population than the geography-based model used by the U.S. and Australia).

Another option is to cut MLA salaries in half, double the number of seats and spread them around. They would become part-timers like they used to be (and city councillors still are), and there would be more people from whom the premier of the day could choose a full-time cabinet.

Old Crow would still be over-represented, but by half as much.

The commission will issue its final report in October after a round of public meetings. Then it will be up to the current Yukon Legislative Assembly to decide what to do, if anything, with the commission’s findings before the next territorial election.

In the meantime, people will keep moving to Whitehorse in general and Whistle Bend specifically. The city’s Official Community Plan includes new areas for when Whistle Bend fills up, with up to 8,500 housing units south of Copper Ridge and around Long Lake. Unless other Yukon communities succeed in attracting people faster than the capital city, that will make the math of Whitehorse even more irresistible, whether you like it or not. The thousands of people moving into those subdivisions will want their say in the legislature.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and the winner of the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist. His most recent book Moonshadows, a Yukon-noir thriller, is available in Yukon bookstores.