Cabinet, kingpin split on leadership pick

Three more Yukon Party MLAs have thrown their support behind leadership contender Rod Taylor. Community Services Minister Archie Lang, Environment Minister John Edzerza and Speaker Ted Staffen endorsed the 51-year-old businessman.

Three more Yukon Party MLAs have thrown their support behind leadership contender Rod Taylor.

Community Services Minister Archie Lang, Environment Minister John Edzerza and Speaker Ted Staffen endorsed the 51-year-old dog musher and businessman on Thursday morning at the Edgewater Hotel. Joining them was Tourism Minister Elaine Taylor, who has supported Rod Taylor’s campaign from the start.

All championed Taylor as a means to “broaden the base” and win centrist voters during the next territorial election, to be held by the autumn.

But to do that, they’ll have to first persuade Yukon Party members that Taylor is one of their own. Many remain unconvinced.

Party heavyweights such as Craig Tuton, a longtime Yukon Party campaign organizer, are supporting Darrell Pasloski. The 50-year-old pharmacist carried the Conservative banner during the 2008 federal election.

That appeals to the Yukon Party’s true-blue, conservative core. Miners have also rallied behind Pasloski, who has vowed not to meddle with the Yukon’s free-entry method of staking.

And what Pasloski lacks in flash, he makes up for in organizational clout.

During a leadership forum held at the High Country Inn’s convention centre Wednesday evening, Pasloski rattled off a long list of potential party candidates he’s helped recruit for the next election.

Taylor, by contrast, spent much of his time on the defensive. Conservatives view him with suspicion for a few reasons.

Not long ago, as head of the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, he slammed the government for showing “contempt” towards planning to protect the Peel Watershed.

Taylor’s since changed his tune. He now supports the government’s drawn-out consultations on the matter, and he disavows ever wanting to see an area “the size of Scotland turned into a park.”

Another knock against Taylor is that he once considered running as a Liberal candidate. Taylor only joined the Yukon Party during last month’s annual meeting, although he says he voted for the party during the past two territorial elections.

As Liberal strategist Jason Cunning tells it, Taylor offered to join their party, if he could supplant their leader, Arthur Mitchell.

Not so, Taylor told the forum crowd. “It’s because I simply couldn’t serve under the current leader. I don’t mean to slag Arthur, but it is what it is.”

Taylor dismissed the suggestion he’s a Liberal plant as a “fantastic conspiracy,” and assured members “nothing could be farther from the truth.”

But he acknowledged his outsider status. “Who knows who I am and what I believe in?” he asked the crowd on the outset. Only a smattering of hands rose.

With that, at a mile-a-minute clip, Taylor launched into his life story. As a young man he climbed tall mountains, paddled remote rivers and trekked across icecaps, until his father advised him “to get a damn job.”

So he worked with drug-addled youth, then rose through the ranks of a corporation that ran homes for the elderly. In 1995, Taylor moved to the Yukon to start his outfitting company, Uncommon Journeys. He’s now helping start a waste-to-energy company.

Taylor’s floated some big ideas during the campaign. His opponents took occasional potshots at them.

One is a plan to lobby for the Yukon to be connected to British Columbia’s energy grid, as a means of obtaining relatively cheap electricity to help fuel the territory’s mining boom.

Taylor also vows to raise the tone of debate in the legislature, by refusing to stoop to sarcasm. If opposition MLAs have good ideas, he would credit them for it, he said.

“We don’t have a monopoly on all the answers.”

Jim Kenyon sniped at these positions as he gave his speech. Before the campaign, the 64-year-old veterinarian served as minister responsible for Economic Development and the lottery, liquor and housing corporations.

Touting his eight and a half years of experience in the legislature, Kenyon expressed doubts legislative debates could ever become free of muckflinging.

“The first time someone calls you an idiot, over 10 to 15 minutes, it doesn’t last. Trust me, Rod, it doesn’t last.”

But Kenyon offered his own solution to make debates less nasty: he would ask other party leaders to strike a pact, under which they’d ask the speaker to enforce existing standing orders that require MLAs not be argumentative and stay on point.

Kenyon also attacked Taylor’s scheme to plug into the British Columbia Energy grid as impractical. It would cost more than $1 billion, and it may require the replacement of much of the current territorial grid, he said.

On housing, Kenyon soft-pedaled his earlier criticism of Premier Dennis Fentie’s decision to sit on $18 million in affordable housing money. But Kenyon promised he would spend these funds to help fix Whitehorse’s housing shortage.

Kenyon also disparaged Pasloski’s promise to secure a commitment from Ottawa that additional money for health care will continue to flow. Health Minister Glenn Hart “has been working on this for two years,” he said.

Pasloski gave a safe speech, leaning heavily on his connections to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a past federal Conservative candidate.

On Yukon’s energy crunch, he promised to both bang on doors in Ottawa to secure money to connect to BC, and to line up a more realistic fix in the short-term, such as pumping natural gas from Eagle Plains.

On the Peel Watershed, he warned, “we should not allow it to be a central focus of the territorial election campaign” or fixate on “arbitrary percentages for protection.”

The 50-year-old pharmacist has offered only modest commitments during the campaign. But he leapfrogged his competitors at the forum by announcing he had enlisted the support of the following potential candidates for the territorial election:

* Garry Njootli, past contender to be Vuntut Gwitchin chief and nephew of the late Grafton Njootli, the first aboriginal person to be elected to Yukon’s legislature;

* Mike Crawshay, Haines Junction councillor, past chair of Alsek Renewable Resources Council and past Yukon Party candidate for Kluane;

* Wade Istchenko, co-chair of Alsek Renewable Resources Council;

* Brad Cathers, MLA for Lake Laberge;

* Dean Hassard, Yukon Party MLA for Pelly-Nisutlin from 2002-06, candidate for Porter Creek South in 2006;

* Val Boxall, Yukon Party candidate for Mount Lorne in 2006, and Kenyon’s former executive assistant.

* Lana Putnam, advocate for better addictions treatment services, following the recent suicide of her son, Chris;

* Russ Hobbis, Yukon Party candidate for Copperbelt in 2006.

The forum was attended by about 150 party faithful – not bad, considering the event coincided with a playoff hockey game.

Anyone who hoped to see fireworks would have been disappointed. To prevent party infighting from becoming any more public, the forum was a tightly scripted affair, with each candidate given 20 minutes to talk.

Candidates had no chance to respond to one another beyond that time slot, and no questions were taken from the floor. That provoked grumbling from some members.

There were likely few undecided voters in the room. But elected members, such as Patrick Rouble and Steve Nordick, declined to say whom they support, offering the dodge, “I’m supporting everyone.”

Premier Dennis Fentis was nowhere in sight. He hasn’t endorsed a candidate, but his shadow has been cast across the campaign, with each candidate vowing to run an open, collaborative government – in contrast to Fentie’s iron-fisted leadership style.

Since the leadership race began, party membership is estimated to have more than doubled, from approximately 300 to upwards of 800, according to organizers.

Yukon Party members vote on May 28. Yukoners must join the party by May 22 to vote in the leadership race.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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