Atkinson and Leef spar at first federal campaign debate

NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson came out swinging at Conservative incumbent Ryan Leef during the Yukon's first federal candidates' debate at Yukon College on Wednesday.

NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson came out swinging at Conservative incumbent Ryan Leef during the Yukon’s first federal candidates’ debate at Yukon College on Wednesday, while Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell mostly floated above the fray.

Green Party candidate Frank de Jong, who was supposed to conference in from Dawson City, was unable to participate due to Wednesday’s Internet outage.

The debate focused on three issues selected by Yukon College’s student body: an inquiry for missing and murdered aboriginal women, student debt, and relations between the government and First Nations in the wake of Bill S-6, which introduced controversial amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act.

The responses to two of those questions were fairly predictable. Bagnell and Atkinson both said their parties would launch inquiries for missing and murdered aboriginal women. Bagnell promised to put an inquiry forward as a private member’s bill if the Liberal Party were not elected.

Leef emphasized that he was the lone Conservative who voted for an NDP motion that included a national inquiry earlier this year. But he said his party is focusing on “action,” including violence-prevention programs, housing, and anti-poverty measures.

To that, Atkinson responded that Leef should have done more to persuade fellow MPs to vote for an inquiry. “If you’re the lone Conservative that votes for it, does that vote really matter?” she asked.

On Bill S-6, Leef maintained that the amendments made to YESAA did not violate the rights of First Nations under the Umbrella Final Agreement, and argued that the dispute hasn’t done irreparable damage to relations with First Nations.

“One area of disagreement does not a bad relationship make,” he said.

Both Atkinson and Bagnell, who say their parties would repeal the four controversial amendments to Bill S-6, were on the attack here.

“Further uncertainty to Yukon’s economy is what you were able to deliver – thanks,” Atkinson told Leef.

Responding in kind, Leef accused the NDP of thinking the Yukon’s mining industry exists only to buy “lettuce and toilet paper,” a dig at a comment made by Yukon NDP Leader Liz Hanson this spring.

But on student debt, the topic we’ve heard least about during this campaign, the candidates had little to offer.

Leef focused on the need to “produce students for fields that have opportunities,” and plugged previous Conservative investments in the Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining and the Cold Climate Innovation Centre.

Bagnell said his party would commit $50 million for post-secondary education for First Nations students, and a further $2.6 billion for aboriginal education.

He also got in a quick jab at the Conservative Party for cutting funding to the Kluane Lake Research Station.

Atkinson focused on criticizing the Conservatives’ track record, but offered little in terms of concrete policy.

There were some light moments. At one point while Atkinson and Bagnell sparred, Leef pulled out a Yukon College toque and put it on, commenting on the sudden chill. It was clearly a planned gimmick, and was largely met with groans from the audience.

Atkinson’s antics seemed to capture the most laughter and applause from the audience. But not everyone was impressed by the verbal warfare.

“A lot of it I’ve kind of heard before,” said Shyloh van Delft, a Yukon College student.

She was most impressed by a commitment from Bagnell’s Liberal Party to create a youth advisory council of Canadians aged 16 to 24 to advise the prime minister on issues relevant to them.

Van Delft said the most important issues for her during this election campaign are youth engagement and environmental protection. She also said she’s very concerned about student debt.

“I would not be able to afford going out to university,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” Van Delft said she currently spends about $6,000 in tuition per semester, not including textbooks.

And when it comes to student debt, she said, the debate didn’t convince her that any particular candidate has the best solution.

In an interview on Thursday, Green Party candidate Frank de Jong said his party plans to abolish tuition at the college and university levels. It would also ensure that no student graduates with more than $10,000 of debt.

“It benefits all society when we have an educated population, and education shouldn’t be the purview of the wealthy members of society.”

De Jong said the party would fund this initiative with a carbon tax and by cutting spending elsewhere, but said it would not raise income or corporate tax.

The Green Party candidate also said First Nations should “absolutely” have veto power over proposals like Bill S-6, and should not have to go to court.

Several more debates and forums have been scheduled for the remainder of the election campaign. All four candidates have confirmed they will attend a forum hosted by the Council of Yukon First Nations on Sept. 29 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Coast High Country Inn

Contact Maura Forrest at

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