MLA Don Hutton pictured in a file photo from the legislature on Dec. 1, 2017. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

MLA Don Hutton pictured in a file photo from the legislature on Dec. 1, 2017. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Don Hutton blasts Liberal rural health program in the legislature

An Auditor-General review of mental health services in rural Yukon is expected next week

Newly-independent MLA Don Hutton is not leaving the Liberal party quietly. Hutton is using his remaining time in the legislature to voice concerns about drug and alcohol abuse in the territory — this time from the right-hand side of the House.

“I would be very surprised if I can get through my reply to this speech without breaking into tears a couple times. It’s lost on my colleagues that I have been attending over 30 funerals since 2016. In no less than 10 of them, I was given the honour of being a pallbearer,” Hutton said on March 11, speaking in debate on the second reading of the territorial budget.

Hutton resigned from the Liberal caucus last week. In a statement, he said he had lost faith in Premier Sandy Silver and had decided to endorse the NDP in the upcoming territorial election.

Since leaving the party, Hutton has spent his speaking time in the legislature criticizing the government’s response. He also spoke in a national CBC interview on March 10 outlining the issues taking place in rural Yukon around mental health, addiction and substance abuse.

In Question Period on March 9 Hutton called attention to the fact that “23 per cent of Yukoners self reported heavy drinking in the Yukon health status report in 2015.” On March 11 he followed it up with a question about the “twin pandemic” of substance abuse and COVID-19.

“Why has the Premier ignored [the Chief Medical Officer of Health] when it comes to alcohol- and drug-related damage to our population?” he asked.

In response, Health Minister Pauline Frost said the Liberal government has made strides to improving rural mental wellness supports.

“The situation in Yukon that we find ourselves in didn’t start overnight; it has been here a long time,” said Frost. “To suggest that we’re not doing anything is absolutely not true. We are doing a lot, and the communities are doing a lot.”

Hutton and his former colleagues clearly disagree on the level of support available. An independent report may soon provide a clearer picture of the situation.

The Auditor General of Canada is planning to present a review of “Mental Health Services in Rural Yukon” in the legislature on March 19. The report will be made public after it is presented to the speaker.

Opposition parties were critical of the minister, who was quoted on March 10 in a national CBC interview claiming that “we have now a psychologist in every community.”

Asked to clarify that claim, Frost reiterated that the government is addressing the problem. She said the territory once had two mental wellness councillors and now has 22 counsellors.

“We provide extensive supports that we have not seen historically,” she said.

In a follow-up question, Hutton questioned the pandemic decision by the Liberal government to reduce alcohol prices for bars and restaurants.

Community Services Minister John Streicker said the measure was to support businesses, and they had to agree not to pass those savings on to consumers. He said he told business that “if you reduce prices on alcohol, I will drop this right away.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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