The fall sitting of the Yukon legislature was the first minority government in 30 years, and it presented both struggles for power and opportunities for cooperation to legislators focused on thorny issues of COVID-19 and a sexual abuse scandal.
At the end of the 30-day session both Premier Sandy Silver and NDP leader Kate White admitted there were “growing pains” in their relationship, which is key to maintaining the minority government.
“There’s no doubt that it was a difficult sitting, that’s for sure,” said Silver, going as far as to say that he felt like politics in the territory had hit “an all-time low.”
Iced out of the CASA agreement, the Yukon Party still managed to launch fierce opposition this session, focusing much of their criticism on vaccine mandates, lack of consultation with rural communities, the unanswered questions at Hidden Valley Elementary School and other education issues.
Across the floor, Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon had similar feelings as Silver but a different point of view by the end of the session.
“This was a disastrous session for the government and is the worst session I’ve seen for a government in my time following Yukon politics,” he said.
Hidden Valley criticism leads to failed no-confidence vote
While COVID-19 has dominated Yukon politics for the past year-and-a-half, the sitting kicked off with intense questions about the situation at Hidden Valley Elementary School.
Dixon described the sitting as a “tough one for the government” and the opposition were certainly not concerned with making it easier.
After weeks of questions on the topic, on Oct. 27 the party introduced a motion to ask Minister Tracy Anne McPhee to resign. The motion passed with the support of the NDP. McPhee did not resign.
On Nov. 26, Dixon introduced another motion: this one a non-confidence vote meant to bring down the Liberal government. While the party insisted the vote was at the behest of Hidden Valley parents, it also gave Dixon a slim chance to become premier.
He failed to convince the NDP and the government withstood the challenge — although White made it clear it was not an easy decision.
“We are very happy with the effort that we put forward in this sitting. We are united in our resolve to see a change in government and to see this government change because we know that Yukoners aren’t getting the leadership they deserve right now and the Liberal government has struggled mightily. What we’ve seen from them when they struggle is that they lash out with personal attacks,” said Dixon.
“The confidence motion was the strongest tool that we had to hold the government to account,” he said.
Four individual investigations into the cases of sexual abuse at Hidden Valley are currently open. The government expects progress on their independent report in January. Both opposition parties have said if that report is not satisfactory, they may move to launch an official inquiry in the spring sitting.
CASA ‘growing pains’
The NDP agreed to prop up the government following the election results, signing a contract that traded policy agreements for guaranteed support on confidence motions.
That formal agreement did not bring an end to criticism or – at times – bickering between the two groups during the session.
“We’re experiencing – I would say growing pains – when it comes to working together. There’s definitely plenty of areas when we were both in opposition, or even just now, where we agree on or we don’t agree on policies,” said Silver.
The NDP could be seen as the big winners of the 2021 election. With a minority split and three MLAs in the third party, the NDP held the power to make or break a government.
The fall sitting showed that being the kingmaker isn’t always easy.
“I am living what I think electoral reform should look like. And it’s difficult. There’ve been hard days and there’ve been good days,” said White.
During the sitting White was forced to make tough decisions about when to support the government. Her MLAs voted for McPhee to resign, for example, but later supported the government rather than bring it down over Hidden Valley.
While they didn’t manage to cinch a last-minute addition to the new Workers’ Compensation policy, they did manage to strike a deal to delay the Building Better retrofits program until more consultation could take place with municipalities.
“The good news is municipalities will be working with the government to develop regulations for that program, ahead of it coming back for a vote in the spring. It’s a huge accomplishment,” said White.
Even within the agreed-upon CASA items, the power struggles continue.
On the final day of the sitting, following media reports about evictions due to the rent cap, the Liberals refused to end evictions without cause. NDP MLA Emily Tredger said the government had “chosen to implement it in a way that leaves a giant loophole.”
Silver told reporters that he believed the NDP was “a bit slow to find their legs when it comes to showing leadership and making some tough decisions, which is hard to do when you’re in opposition. It’s easier to be the person for everybody. And when you’re in leadership roles, you really do have to make decisions.”
Unsurprisingly, White disagreed.
“Right now, it’s only my leadership that’s keeping him in government,” she said.
The CASA agreement included several promises, a number of which have already been tackled in this session. These include the ban on single-use plastics, a higher minimum wage, supervised consumption site and a cap on rent increases.
Outstanding promises from the CASA – which may appear in the spring sitting – include permanent paid sick days, successor mining legislation, a seven-day per week mental health clinic and territory-wide dental.
While political drama took a lot of attention this sitting, the government was also able to pass a number of new laws, including a supplementary budget that includes money for childcare costs, flood recovery in the Southern Lakes and renewable energy projects.
The overhauled Workers’ Safety and Compensation Act will modernize employee rights in the territory, the Act to Amend the Family Property and Support Act makes common-law partnerships more equitable with marriages, the SCAN Act has been strengthened and the Act to Amend the Cannabis Control and Regulation Act will allow private retailers to have online sales.
The Better Buildings retrofit program, a major component of the Our Clean Future strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions, did not pass through the House this session. Facing concerns from municipalities, the Liberals intended to pass the bill and finalize details later but were halted by the NDP.
Instead, the two parties reached an agreement to pass the second reading but bring the legislation back in the spring sitting in order to give municipalities time to negotiate.
“Despite these rocky moments, I’m very proud of my team and their leadership. We’ve continued to pull together and we continue to make progress on a number of very important fronts,” said Silver.
The government’s decision to introduce a vaccine mandate for public servants brought COVID-19 into the legislature like never before.
On Nov. 1 the Yukon Party supported bringing a petition forward, with over 2,000 signatures, calling on the government to reverse their decision. After speaker Annie Blake asked the packed gallery to wear masks, a recess had to be called due to interruptions.
Trying to force a debate on the vaccine mandate, the Liberals introduced a motion to ask every MLA in the house to support the government’s actions.
Instead, Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon shut the debate down before it began. He had the backing of the NDP. Both parties said they didn’t need to waste time arguing views they’d already shared.
Silver’s refrain during the sitting was that opposition parties either need to support all the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health or admit they were picking and choosing. For their part, both Dixon and White said the government needed to be more transparent with what that advice was so that Yukoners could feel more comfortable with the decisions being made.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org