Darius Elias, the MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, was recently charged with talking on his cell phone while driving and refusing to take a breathalyzer during a traffic stop. This was followed by a public admission by Elias of a drinking problem and a promise to seek appropriate help to overcome same.
This sequence of events inevitably lead the chattering classes to call for further action from Elias, ranging from demands for his resignation from the House to calls for further information from Elias concerning the historical extent of his alcohol issue. There were even calls in this newspaper for the premier to disclose what he knew concerning Elias’s issues and when he knew it.
I take the position that Elias and the government have taken all necessary steps at this point, and that neither Elias, and certainly not the premier, should further publicly discuss a matter that is both a private medical issue and a matter before the courts. Elias is accountable only to the constituents of Old Crow, and needs space to get healthy and determine whether he retains the confidence of his constituents moving forward.
The decision to maintain his seat in the House is a decision that is left to the member himself, and should be left as such. The rules that dictate when a member of the legislature is suspended or forced to resign are, funnily enough, set by the legislature itself. The Election Act, the Legislature Assembly Act and the standing orders of the assembly governed by the Speaker of the House set the rules by which candidates may run and when members of the legislature may be removed from the House.
The end result of the above noted legislative structure is that there are very few scenarios that force the removal or suspension of a member from the legislature. In Yukon a member becomes disqualified from sitting in the House if the member ceases to be a permanent resident of Yukon, the member is elected to the House of Commons or appointed to the Senate or if the member is convicted of taking a bribe in exchange for influencing a decision or proceeding of the House. In N.W.T. and Nunavut individuals are precluded from sitting in the House if incarcerated for an indictable offence, a disqualification that does not seem to be present in the Yukon Elections Act or the Legislative Assembly Act.
All this to say that a member of the legislature is left to decide if and when to resign his or her seat. Elias, after meeting with his constituents, is left to decide his own fate. If we wish to set criteria by which elected members must take leave or vacate their seat then the legislative structure should be changed. Until then we must respect that the current rules leaves the decision to Elias and let him determine the next steps.
Further, Elias does not owe anybody the details surrounding his medical issue, be those details present or historical. Elias has admitted that he has a problem, has disclosed that he will seek help and indicated that he will deal with the legal fall-out from the charge whatever that may be. This is a personal issue for Elias and the foregoing is all that is required to be disclosed of an inherently private matter.
It would be doubly inappropriate for the premier to discuss Elias’s issues with the public. Elias is afforded a certain sphere of privacy concerning his personal issues, and it would be a betrayal of same if the premier were to chime in concerning those issues. It is clear that the government has faith in Elias to adequately discharge the duties of his position within caucus, and that support is as far as the government and the premier should comment at this time. Rather than comment further, the appropriate thing for the government and the premier to do is to work with Elias to give him every chance of coming through treatment successfully.
At the end of the day Elias is accountable not to the public at large, nor to the local newspapers, but to the constituents of Old Crow. Elias needs space to consult with his constituents and determine a path forward. If Elias feels he has the confidence of his constituents to continue, then he will continue. At the end of the day it will be the voters of Old Crow, either in consultation with Elias over the next few months or on election day, that decide whether Elias remains in the House.
Alcoholism is a prevalent issue in the Yukon; it spares no profession nor no class of individual. It is important that we recognize that the first step to treating the disease is admitting it exists, and that Elias has taken that first step. At this point let us give him the space he needs to move forward for both himself and his constituency.
Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.