Premier Dennis Fentie opted out of the Western Premiers Conference this week.
Instead, he sent a stand-in to the Gimli, Manitoba, meetings.
Health and Social Services minister Brad Cathers, the cabinet’s least experienced member, represented the Yukon.
But Cathers left early, returning to the Yukon on Wednesday. A media briefing won’t be held until Monday.
In Gimli, Canadian premiers discussed the ailing Kelowna accord and equalization payments among provinces and territories, cross-border security and other issues.
But the weeklong conference morphed into a “North American Leaders Summit,” attended by key politicians from across the continent, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and ambassadors from Mexico and the United States.
Delegates, including Northwest Territories Premier Joe Handley and Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik — whose jurisdictions do not share an international boundary with the US — discussed various issues, including an American initiative to require passports for travel between the three nations.
“We will be dealing with North American trade, North American energy, North American transportation, North American education and training as a competitive reality,” Manitoba Premier Gary Doer told CBC Radio One on Wednesday in Gimli.
“We will be briefing the prime minister on North American issues,” said Doer, who is hosting the international event.
“Most of these items will be communicated to the national government in the form of a letter, or in the form of a press conference, or in material that goes to the larger meeting, the Council of the Federation meeting, in eight weeks.”
Cathers and the Yukon were not included on a list of attendees at a “North American Relations” summit organized by the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat.
All of the premiers at the meeting did attend the summit, including Handley and Okalik.
Cathers was selected from the Yukon Party cabinet to attend the conference by Fentie, who decided to take a few days off in Watson Lake.
The Gimli meeting did not fit with Fentie’s schedule, said cabinet communications spokesman Peter Carr.
“He’s doing riding business and he’s taking some time off.”
Cathers is not available for comment until Monday, said Carr.
He was chosen to attend the Gimli meetings because of “availability of other ministers, nothing more than that,” said Carr.
“Mr. Cathers was there, Mr. Cathers was representing the Yukon.
“He’s back now. He attended the main sessions and returned to Yukon.”
Cathers, 28, was first elected in 2002 as the Yukon Party MLA for Lake Laberge.
He was named to cabinet in December, after Klondike MLA Peter Jenkins was expelled from the government caucus.
To send anyone other than the premier to such a high-profile meeting is a gesture of disrespect, especially since the Yukon has struggled in the past for a legitimate seat at the negotiating table, said NDP leader Todd Hardy.
“Cathers, by his own admission in the legislature this spring, does not have the expertise or understanding of his own department, let alone any other departments of the Yukon,” Hardy said Thursday.
“Sending him is basically a step backwards, and it sends a message that I find worrisome.
“The premiers are sitting there, looking at a junior minister — not one of the senior ministers — a young kid junior minister sent down there, probably without proper briefing.
“Cathers was the only one available? That’s nonsense.”
If Fentie had a commitment he could not break, he could have sent Education minister John Edzerza or Jim Kenyon, the minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corporation, said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.
“There were three or four things being addressed there, and the Kelowna Accord speaks to education, health and housing,” said Mitchell.
“I think it speaks to the bench strength of the government, that that is the best that they could do.
“It could have been (Edzerza) and it could have been (Kenyon).
“I’m not necessarily criticizing (Fentie’s) choice of who went. I think if you are duly elected and you are a minister, I don’t care if you’re 28 or 58.
“Rather, I’d like to know why the premier didn’t go. Presumably, the other premiers have busy schedules too.”
Fentie was unavailable for comment.
Equalization payments and the Kelowna accord on aboriginal poverty were addressed earlier this week.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said Alberta will consider opting out of any federal equalization plan that includes sharing resource revenues, particularly from the oil and gas sector.
“This is political showdown,” Klein told the CBC Radio One last week.
“This is also a constitutional issue. Alberta has control and authorization and authority over its resources.”
And the premiers seem to be resurrecting the $5.1-billion Kelowna accord from the ashes, after it was left out of Harper’s first budget, released in May.
“I can tell you, in British Columbia we are committed to it (and) I believe the federal government will come to the table,” BC Premier Gordon Campbell told CTV Tuesday in Gimli.
“My hope is that all provincial governments will have laid out their plans for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people about how they are going to close those gaps and bring the federal government in to provide the kind of resources that are necessary over the long term.”
In previous interviews, Fentie said he was satisfied that the new Conservative government in Ottawa recognized the need for a base-plus-per capita funding arrangement for Canada’s three northern territories.
Furthermore, Ottawa is not turning its back on the “principles” of the $5.1 billion Kelowna accord that was negotiated under the previous federal Liberal government, he said last week.
Previously, Fentie said $5.1 billion over five years was “the floor,” and that a less costly package would be unacceptable.
But Ottawa is still committed to addressing the needs of First Nations communities, and they’ve made partial good on that commitment with a $50-million commitment for aboriginal housing in the Yukon alone, he said last week.
“This (Yukon) government is comfortable with the responses we’re getting from Canada.”
Fentie may have missed the high-profile Gimli meetings, but he will attend Council of the Federation meetings next week in Edmonton, AB, “where issues regarding transfer payments and equalization and things will be hopefully resolved,” said Carr.