When Yukon Party MLA Darius Elias shepherded reporters around his home town of Old Crow during a government-sponsored junket late last week he seemed to smell of alcohol. This is a sitting politician who not long ago pleaded guilty to refusing a breathalyzer test, and who insists that he has since taken steps to address his drinking problem.
This is also a sitting politician who has never offered the public an explanation as to why he refused to blow for an officer – raising obvious suspicions that he was, contrary to his denials, driving under the influence – and who similarly refuses to say what he’s done to tackle his addictions. That, he says, is purely a private matter.
This may have been true if Elias had a normal job. But he doesn’t. He is a public representative, and if his drinking affects his ability to perform this duty, that’s everybody’s concern. To pretend this is merely a matter for his constituents to worry about is to take a narrow, impoverished view of the relationship between a member of the legislative assembly and the broader public interest they are expected to serve.
When we offered Elias a chance this week to respond to the observation that he seemed to smell of alcohol during the tour, he gave a one-word answer: “Oh.” After that, the Yukon Party’s spokesman stepped in. He did not deny that Elias had been drinking. Instead, he repeated that Elias was dealing with his addictions “privately” and that there was nothing more to say on the subject.
That creates the misleading impression that Elias and the Yukon Party have said much of anything at all on the subject since Elias’s name appeared on the court docket two years ago. Meanwhile, we don’t know whether Elias ever took a formal leave of absence to address his addictions, or whether he attended a rehab program, although many will take his silence as a tacit admission that the answer to these questions is no. He also won’t say whether he is still drinking, although our own observations suggest the answer is yes.
Elias hasn’t even offered the public a real apology for the actions that led to his criminal conviction – to do that, you would have to explain what you had done wrong, which he has never done. Instead, during a news conference held in May 2014 to pre-empt the news of Elias’s court case, the public was treated to a carefully scripted bit of political damage control, in which both Elias and the premier, who sat by his side, each read a short statement before leaving the room without answering a single question.
At this point maybe it’s necessary to say that Elias seems like a decent guy who cares about his community, and we genuinely hope that he is able to win his battle with the bottle. Raising the same, unanswered questions about his behaviour may feel like kicking somebody when he is down. But it’s also worth noting that elsewhere in Canada, politicians in Elias’s situation are generally expected to behave like grown-ups, whereas here, the Yukon Party seems content to treat Elias as if he were a child.
Consider, for instance, the case of the rookie Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan, who revealed in January that he had checked himself into rehab over the Christmas holidays to deal with his drinking problem. In interviews, O’Regan candidly described himself as an alcoholic. He also set a clear goal of working towards becoming alcohol-free.
O’Regan also kept the communication lines open between himself and his constituents and the broader public, reporting over Facebook that after completing a stint in rehab he had gone 40 days without drinking. For this candor, O’Regan received widespread public support.
There’s no reason why Elias could not have taken a similar path and received similar support and goodwill. Alcoholism, after all, is a huge issue in the territory, and if Elias were forthright about his own struggles, he could inspire others to seek help.
And if Elias wasn’t ready to accept full responsibility and deal with his problems? In such a situation, Premier Darrell Pasloski could have forced the matter by making it a condition of Elias remaining in the party that he take a leave of absence and attend rehab. To the best of our knowledge, he didn’t.
Instead, as is often the case with potential embarrassments, the response from Pasloski’s government seems to have been to pretend, at least in public, that the problem doesn’t exist. This secrecy does nobody any favours. It raises the obvious concern that Elias may not be receiving the help he needs. It also creates the perception that the premier may be enabling an addict. It’s well past time for both to clear the air on the matter.