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Economic forum draws party faithful

Three black suits sat on a podium, talking about economics.Two were contenders — Dennis Fentie and Arthur Mitchell, elected leaders and…

Three black suits sat on a podium, talking about economics.

Two were contenders — Dennis Fentie and Arthur Mitchell, elected leaders and sitting MLAs vying to be premier.

The other was Rachael Lewis, a never-elected New Democrat — a stalwart the NDP depends on in times of crisis to plug holes and save the party some embarrassment.

She struggled during the two-hour leadership forum hosted by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce at the Yukon Inn on Thursday.

About 80 people gathered in the Fireside Room, and almost all were affiliated with one of the parties.

Lewis was filling in for NDP leader Todd Hardy, who is scheduled to return to the Yukon today.

Lewis was also covering for interim leader Steve Cardiff, who attended part of the forum, but, inexplicably, took a pass on the debate.

Lewis was prepared for about half the questions that moderator David Morrison sent her way.

The government’s role in the Yukon economy is to assist a vibrant private sector with training and to help small businesses that need it, said Lewis.

To diversify the Yukon economy, an NDP government would improve relationships with First Nations to create new economic opportunities, she said.

“We can’t treat First Nations issues as though they were their responsibility alone,” said Lewis.

“We need real partnerships.”

Fentie and Mitchell had other ideas.

The economy is already diversified because of the Yukon Party’s success in fostering growth in other sectors, such as film and sound, cultural industries and the arts community, said Fentie.

He touched on two things needed to maintain the Yukon’s economic trajectory.

The government must invest in infrastructure and specific initiatives, like a research centre for cold climate technology, he said.

Rural Yukon can’t tap the hot economy, noted Mitchell.

“I want to ensure that more and more Yukoners have training to take advantage of those jobs,” he said.

When it comes to First Nations relations, government must genuinely care about their issues, not just pay lip service, said Mitchell.

For instance, when it comes to regulatory regimes, like the new Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Act, First Nations don’t have the resources to analyze industrial applications that the Yukon government has, and, so, they can be unfairly restricted by timelines, he said.

“Their capacity issues are very different from YTG’s.”

Fentie suggested he had successful relationships with First Nations during his first four years in office.

A First Nations woman in the crowd hissed when Fentie extolled the virtues of a recent deal he brokered between the Selkirk First Nation, the Yukon government and Sherwood Copper Corp., which owns the Minto copper project near Fort Selkirk.

The Yukon government has been working on eight land-use planning regions and finally established a council in North Yukon, said Fentie.

Lewis started to founder on the question of privatization.

Protecting unions and preventing for-profit public services from taking root are traditional NDP territory, but Lewis said she would consider privatized liquor stores.

She said she would need more information on the privatization of highways, and that she wasn’t crazy about the idea of privatized health care.

“Government employees must remain employed,” she said.

Fentie and Mitchell were far more articulate in opposition to privatization.

Privatized health is a non-starter under the Canada Health Act, and even though private clinics exist in Whitehorse they are publicly funded, said Fentie.

“Privatization is not the step that we must take,” he said.

“We need to find new opportunities, not dilute the ones we have.”

Fentie and Mitchell took a couple of polite swipes at each other, and each thanked the other for adopting their party’s policy in their platforms.

Mitchell thanked Fentie for proposing to lure health professionals North by offering to pay down debt loads.

And Fentie thanked Mitchell for endorsing cold climate technology that the Yukon Party wants to research and develop.

“Nobody has a patent on good ideas,” said Mitchell.

The only real mudslinging of the evening came during the closing remarks.

And it came from Lewis.

She pushed Hardy’s idea for an all-party economic council that would end the “divide-and-conquer” approach to governance.

And then Lewis slammed Fentie’s record in Watson Lake, where she is running.

“I have been talking to longtime Yukoners in Watson Lake and I can tell you that, where there should be optimism about our economy, there is great concern,” she said.

“The one major economic boost to the economy of Watson Lake is the delayed and constantly revised construction of a new extended-care facility.”

The town is suffering from depression, a lack of competition and high food prices, she said.

“How does the premier intend to lead the way to solid economic solutions to the territory’s needs when he can’t offer solutions to the economic hardships in his own riding?”

Fentie demurred.

“I’m not going to rebut what I just heard, frankly, because it’s not factual,” he said with a chuckle.

“In my community we are crying for workers.”

He recalled 2002 when the global cycle of mineral prices was robust, but not reaching the Yukon.

“That has changed today. In fact, today the Yukon has far outdistanced where other jurisdictions are in investment and particularly in the mining sector.

“We went about removing barriers and restoring investor confidence back in the territory.

“The results are evident all around us.”