Does the Yukon need a wake up call?

Rich Thompson This time of the year it sometimes pays to be reflective. I pen these reflections not in my capacity as chairman of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, nor as CEO of Northern Vision Development LP. Not even as a concerned Yukoner, as despite spe

COMMENTARY

by Rich Thompson

This time of the year it sometimes pays to be reflective.

I pen these reflections not in my capacity as chairman of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, nor as CEO of Northern Vision Development LP. Not even as a concerned Yukoner, as despite spending much time here, I continue to reside in Alberta. I write as a long-term Yukon investor worried about recent events.

I was introduced to the Yukon in 1994 as a marketing strategist on Yukon Tourism campaigns. I have seen the territory grow significantly in the 20 years since, with devolution, a solid mining cycle and other events that have seen the territory emerge as a mature region with growing confidence, often governed by strong leaders, and home to serious and full debates on what is right – from the economy to the environment, from social welfare to creating vibrant communities.

Most of the time, I could not believe that I was so lucky as to have business interests in such an awesome and awe-inspiring place.

From my start with tourism, I moved as CEO of NVD, to become an owner/operator of hotels, real estate properties and other Yukon assets. NVD has developed a large business park, helped redefine waterfront, and invested heavily in hotels and restaurant assets. Along the way we have attracted the support of First Nation partners who own more than 40 per cent of NVD while playing an important role in the development of our company.

We have benefited from governments at all levels that are passionate about the Yukon’s future and that work with inspiring dedication in developing policies that help move things forward. I have been impressed with the conviction of Yukoners of all stripes, specifically with their strong commitment to making the Yukon a great place for all. For the most part, I have seen Yukoners put their oar in the water and row in much the same direction.

Not so much anymore. The arguments over amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act seem poised to undermine what is intended – and therefore to communicate to many that the Yukon is not open for business. Industry desires a Yukon that is properly regulated, but capable of producing investor returns. We do not want investors thinking this is the last place to do business in, but we are headed there.

The respectful dialogue that I have always marvelled at between the most advanced First Nations in Canada, the Yukon government and industry seems to be eroding. The fundamental pillars of strength that exist in the Yukon, and that I have bragged about to colleagues in southern Canada, are disappearing.

This is what I know. The First Nation partners that are a key part of our company are some of the best partners I have ever had. They are committed, long term in their thinking, and respectful of the partnerships we have developed.

Governments in the Yukon, whether it be NDP, Liberal or Yukon Party, have been led by committed individuals with vision who have been responsible at least in part for developing best-in-class land claim settlements with First Nations and investment in infrastructure that has helped the Yukon grow from a frontier land to a key Canadian region – all the while with a careful eye on social issues and the importance of creating vibrant communities.

I have seen the citizens of the Yukon, buoyed by the northern entrepreneurial spirit of the citizens before them, build a confidence and an enthusiasm that the Yukon can be a great place to live, and that they can all continue to work together to ensure that sustainable progress is made that will ensure a pristine environment remains for our children’s children and beyond.

In my view, this great success has been achieved because people have been committed to real dialogue and consensus building. People have not resorted to lawsuits to reach agreements. There has been a true spirit of partnership, at most times aimed simply at ensuring that the Yukon is better tomorrow than it is today.

I have been most impressed by that spirit of partnership that has brought together political parties, First Nations, industry and ordinary citizens in a way that made the Yukon a better place. It seemed to be the one part of Canada that really had things figured out.

But today, I see governments trying to make things happen but being accused of a lack of proper consultation or vision. This results in failed initiatives and stutter steps. I see First Nations challenging the government’s effort at almost every step. I see a business community losing its confidence and worried that the Yukon is no longer an appropriate place to invest. I see increasing partisanship. I see a great place that is starting to lose its way.

But we can get it right. To me, the solution lies in partnership. Government should abandon their view that they can never provide enough consultation because no amount of consultation will ever be viewed as sufficient. And First Nations should avoid at all costs the threat of using lawyers and the courts to help chart the future course. Business people should speak more confidently about what is required.

In short, we should get back to the partnerships that have made us strong, and stop the erosion of so many good things in the Yukon. We have not stepped too far into the ditch. But with each passing day I fear we are getting in deeper, and the time for leadership from all sides is right now.

Here is what I know. The Yukon is one of the best places in Canada – it truly reflects what makes our nation great. The company I run has become stronger precisely because we work in respectful partnership with First Nations. We don’t agree on everything, but we work to understand in order to make things better.

It is a good company because it has developed strong and respectful relationships with government. Again, we have our disagreements, but there is a desire to ensure understanding so things can be done better in the future. We have relationships with all political parties because we understand fully that the members of all parties represent their constituents and have dedicated themselves to the goal of making the Yukon a better place.

Our company is stronger because we count amongst our board and senior management an ex-NDP premier, a leading supporter of the Liberals, an early participant in the Reform Party of Canada, and a former city councillor. Our staff is a strong mix of highly experienced business people mixed with young entrepreneurs upon whose back the future of the Yukon can be built – a mixed gender group, young and old, experienced and wide-eyed, who work closely together for our success.

In my 20 years in the Yukon, I have never seen a more serious need for the appropriate leadership to be delivered from all sides – government at all levels, including federal, territorial, First Nation and city – business and industry, non-profits and the citizens at large.

Our GDP growth has fallen off – moving swiftly from the best in Canada to the worst – and the confidence that was beginning to build into a firm foundation is at risk. This is a great place, and Yukoners are great people. Let’s replace some of the criticism, partisanship and opposition with strong mutual respect and full partnership between all of us, and let’s get the important jobs done.

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