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Analysis: What to expect at the Yukon legislature’s spring sitting

It has been two years since COVID-19 interrupted the March 2020 session – and things have changed
The entrance to the Yukon legislature photographed Oct. 22, 2021. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News file)

After a fiery fall sitting that included a rowdy protest, tearful speeches and an unexpected confidence vote, MLAs have had a chance to cool off. Whether the upcoming session will be just as unpredictable remains to be seen.

The spring sitting of the legislature will begin on March 3. That’s when elected MLAs from all three parties will return to the legislature at 1 p.m. to resume business from the last sitting in the fall and introduce new legislation.

The politicians have been on a reprieve after a sitting characterized by a protest over pandemic measures and a grilling from the opposition on the controversial handling of a sexual assault incident at Hidden Valley Elementary School.

“[The fall] was easily the most contentious sitting of my entire time so far. And I’ve been here a long time,” said NDP leader Kate White, during an interview prior to the sitting.

When the legislature resumes, the first order of business will be the introduction of this year’s budget. This annual peek at financials will include the territory’s debt levels and estimated spending.

It will be a chance to see some of the government’s big priorities, as well as how the territory has been affected by COVID-19. As the minister of Finance, Premier Sandy Silver will be introducing the 2022-23 budget in the house on the first day back.

Unfinished business

Beyond the budget, there’s still unfinished business set to return to the sitting. The government will need to introduce all the bills it wants the assembly to deal with during the sitting by March 10.

In the fall sitting, the Act to Amend the Assessment and Taxation Act and the Municipal Act, which would allow a green retrofit rebate program to be introduced across the territory, was thwarted by the NDP.

While the opposition party supported the goal of the program, White opposed it based on a lack of buy-in from municipalities. The bill reached second reading before the two parties reached an agreement to delay the final reading until the spring sitting in 2022.

There was, of course, more than one agreement made by the NDP and Liberals in the last year. After Yukoners elected a minority government, the two parties struck a Confidence and Supply Agreement (CASA). The document expires in January 2023 and trades NDP policy goals for support during confidence votes.

The Liberals have two more sittings — this spring sitting and then fall — before it expires.

Outstanding items in that agreement include a mandatory sick leave policy, universal dental care, a seven-day a week mental health clinic, successor mining legislation and an updated Clean Energy Act.

“We believe that everyone should have access to sick leave, and it should be universal, so that you’ll hear us talking about it as well,” said White.

CASA items already delivered include a new minimum wage of $15.20 an hour, a ban on single-use plastics, a supervised consumption site and a cap on rent increases.

While they still have the ability to introduce private member’s bills, the agreement has largely left the Yukon Party out in the cold. During the fall sitting, leader Currie Dixon appealed to the NDP to break off their agreement over the handling of the Hidden Valley school scandal.

That attempt was unsuccessful. Returning to the spring sitting, Dixon said it’s unlikely his party will be raising another stand-alone no-confidence vote. But they do have the CASA agreement in their crosshairs.

“So we’re going to use our time in the legislature to dig into those issues and examine how the Liberal and NDP coalition policies are making life less affordable for Yukoners,” he said. “Our business community is reeling right now. And all we’ve seen from the Liberals are a series of NDP policies that are holding small- and medium-sized businesses down.”

COVID-19, schools and opioids certain to be Question Period focus

It has been two years since the 2020 spring sitting was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the political landscape around the topic has changed dramatically. The territory’s total population is now about 80 per cent vaccinated, but those who oppose continued public health measures have been protesting weekly.

Another protest is planned for outside the legislature on March 3.

Both opposition party leaders said they want to see a clearer plan from the government on how the territory will emerge from the pandemic. Dixon said in his opinion, the Liberal government has “completely checked out.”

“We’re glad that the legislature will resume sitting and we get a chance to ask some questions and hold the government to account over the past several months,” he said.

White said she’s also interested in a plan that looks at the future.

“How do we recover? How do we move on from COVID? And what does that look like?” said White.

While a number of provinces are phasing out public health measures, Silver has said the territorial government will be following the science and working with the chief medical officer of health when it comes to those decisions.

Last sitting the parties spent weeks hammering the government on their handling of the Hidden Valley sexual abuse file. An independent report released in January said “systemic” challenges were to blame, rather than one individual, but Dixon said that’s not satisfactory.

“We certainly don’t intend on giving up our search for accountability,” he said. “The buck has to stop somewhere. We believe that the buck needs to stop with the minister and the premier.”

White said schools are also on her mind heading into the sitting. In particular, she said the auditor general’s review of inclusive and special education made it clear that some students are being left behind.

The territory is also dealing with a second health crisis in addition to the pandemic. So far this year at least eight people have died from opioid-related overdoses in the territory.

Safe supply was part of the CASA agreement that was implemented — at least on paper — but White made it clear she wants to do more and make sure those policies are effective.

“We still have so much work to do on harm reduction,” she said. “The Yukon government declared an emergency but we haven’t seen any real resources come along with that, or support for municipalities. So, we’ve got lots of questions about that, and some ideas and suggestions as well.”

Other issues brought up during interviews before the sitting included Dixon being concerned about housing shortages and electricity prices and White commenting on the lack of a walk-in clinic.

Contact Haley Ritchie at