occupy whitehorse

It is perhaps too much to say that the global Occupy! protests started in Whitehorse. But the Whitehorse tenters did occupy the Yukon legislature's lawn well before the Occupy Wall Street folks took over New York's Zuccotti Park.

It is perhaps too much to say that the global Occupy! protests started in Whitehorse. But the Whitehorse tenters did occupy the Yukon legislature’s lawn well before the Occupy Wall Street folks took over New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Criticisms of the two movements have been similar. Many have mocked the groups as lazy loony leftists or professional protesters, taking a break from their trendy condos to rough it in the park. “Serious” policy makers have complained that neither group has a coherent set of policy demands.

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction evolve over time. Once it became clear that the protesters weren’t Molotov-cocktail-hurling anarchists, some politicians and interest groups have moved closer to the bandwagon. Even on the right, politicians are now feigning respect for the movements.

It’s true that neither Occupy nor the Yukon tenters have a clearly articulated policy agenda. But their protests have been useful all the same.

What they’ve done is change the political conversation. I’ve been gobsmacked to watch the rise of the Tea Party in the US, where apparently large numbers of people are angry at the government for the financial crisis. Occupy reminds us that it seems deeply unfair that taxpayers will be paying off the bailouts and stimulus packages for a generation, while business and bonuses seem back to usual on Wall Street.

Here in the Yukon, the tenters put the housing crisis at the top of the public agenda. Their success was clear during the election, when the parties were tripping over each other to announce new housing schemes.

I don’t hold it against them that they didn’t have detailed plans for zoning changes, land development policy or social-housing funding mechanisms. We have plenty of wonks to do that.

But we did apparently need someone to stand up and say “Time out!” to the government and our body politic as a whole. It really is a “WTF” moment when there is a land shortage in a territory the size of France with just 34,000 inhabitants.

It is also an indictment of “serious” policy makers, including ministers, mayors, housing officials at the city and Yukon governments and local think tanks (not to mention economics columnists at local newspapers). Looking back in 20-20 hindsight, we should have moved more quickly on the housing issue before used trailers started appearing in the real estate pages at over a quarter-million bucks.

To their credit, the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce and social justice groups have been talking about housing for years. We should ask ourselves why their message didn’t seem to get through until some people started tenting on the legislature lawn. As Paul Newman said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Anyway, the message has been sent and received. The question now is whether we Yukoners will do anything about it. Our main vehicle here is the Yukon government. All eyes are now on the Yukon Party to deliver on the housing platform it put out during the election.

For those who were at the bottom of a mineshaft in September and didn’t hear all the housing announcements, here’s a recap of the Yukon Party promises:

* “Implement a comprehensive strategy to address the housing needs of Yukoners,” including a youth centre in downtown Whitehorse, expanding or replacing the Salvation Army shelter and offering more “housing options” to those in need.

* “Making Crown land available to the private sector to ensure new rental accommodations.”

* “Implement the recommendations” of the Landlord and Tenant Act committee.

* “Explore options to assist Yukoners who are in social housing to own their own homes.”

* “Work with First Nations to make their land available for residential development.”

* Streamlining the land application process.

* “Work with the City of Whitehorse to ensure … a constant supply of residential lots.”

* Work with municipal governments to make land available for residential and recreational lots.

Lots of people criticized this platform during the election. There are lots of other ideas out there. But these initiatives, properly implemented, would make a big difference.

The tenters put the issue at the top of the agenda. The Yukon Party articulated a housing platform and won the election. We now expect them to deliver on it in a timely fashion.

It’s now up to the rest of us to make sure our government delivers on its promises. If nothing is happening when the snow melts and building season begins, and the tenters are back on the legislature lawn, it will be a sign of failure all around.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.