Education and Justice minister John Edzerza resigned from the Yukon Party on Wednesday.
After much speculation during recent months about his political future, Edzerza finally put rumours to rest and declared his intention to seek re-election this fall with the Yukon New Democratic Party.
“My resignation is based on solely political reasons,” Edzerza, 57, said at a news conference Thursday.
“My resignation is based on doubt.
“There were several areas of concern for me, leading up to my resignation.”
For about a year-and-a-half, Edzerza has felt ignored by the Yukon Party under the direction of Premier Dennis Fentie, he said, offering two examples.
The first was the Yukon Party’s stated intention to construct a new school in the Whitehorse neighbourhood of Granger.
“Without my knowledge, the building of a school in Granger was announced,” said Edzerza, in reference to a published comment from former Copperbelt candidate Cynthia Kearns, a longtime Fentie ally, who announced the Yukon Party’s plans to build a school in the riding during her campaign in the Copperbelt byelection in November 2005.
“This will and would have impact on Elijah Smith (Elementary School) and the Takhini Elementary School,” said Edzerza, who is the MLA for McIntyre-Takhini.
“I voiced my concerns, and I feel that I was not heard then, and I doubt I would be heard in the future.”
The second reason Edzerza offered, and “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” was Fentie’s decision to pull funding for a new school in Burwash from the 2006-2007 budget.
Edzerza was embarrassed. “As minister of Education, I had a handshake deal with a witness present,” he said.
“But it was withdrawn without my knowledge until after the fact.
“I was made aware of the change approximately four days after the change was done.
“I would have resigned then, but I am not a quitter.
“I was elected under the Yukon Party, so the best interests of my constituents came first.
“I feel at this time I have completed my mandate for this term.”
He also mentioned the government’s decision to slaughter the entire Northern Splendour reindeer herd in 2005 as a reason for resigning.
“I think that there could have been a better way to deal with that issue. I was in shock.”
Edzerza had no specific complaints about his Justice portfolio.
But a chief achievement of Justice, the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act that passed the legislature this spring, would not have been on the government’s radar had it not been for the efforts of NDP leader Todd Hardy, he said.
“My goals are more in line with the NDP,” said Edzerza.
“Had it not been for Todd Hardy and his town hall meetings, there would not have been a safer community legislation that was recently passed in the house.”
The Yukon needs more attention to the social agenda, he said.
For example, a territorial government that sincerely wants to work with First Nations should develop drug rehabilitation programs with First Nations that have the necessary infrastructure, said Edzerza.
“I honestly the think territory is going to be in dire need of someone like Todd Hardy to move the social agenda.
“I understand full well how important economic development is, but I also am aware of how important it is to have healthy people.
“If we’re not going to take the drug situation in the territory very seriously, we’re going to be burying a lot of our young people.
“We have to put more emphasis and more support towards treatment, as opposed to any other form of ways to deal with the drug issue.
“I’ve had several younger people come to ask me, ‘Who do I go to see? I want to quit this coke.’
“Quite frankly, I don’t know where to send them.”
Because of his doubt about the Yukon Party’s ability to handle such major issues, Edzerza decided to resign.
“I will seek the nomination for the NDP in McIntyre-Takhini in the next election.”
Edzerza was first elected in 2002.
Politics is in his blood because his ancestors were hereditary chiefs of the Tahltan nation, he said.
He is one of 18 siblings in his family, and the only one to seek territorial office.
However, NDP stalwart Rachael Lewis announced her intention to seek the NDP nomination in McIntyre-Takhini on Tuesday.
Lewis ran for the NDP in Riverdale South in 2000 and again in the Southern Lakes in 2002. In both elections she was unsuccessful.
Edzerza said Hardy has not made him any promises.
He did not speculate about running as an independent candidate, but said stepping out of politics was not an option.
Hardy could not be reached for comment.
Edzerza was notably absent from the Yukon Party’s annual general meeting in April.
But Edzerza said he was given a voice during cabinet meetings in recent months, and bears the Yukon Party and its members no ill will.
“I still have respect for the premier and I have a lot of respect for every MLA.”
Edzerza thanked Education and Justice staff for allowing him to help make progress in the Yukon.
But the time was right to leave, even with an election call required by November, he said.
“If there is going to be a supplementary budget developed, I don’t want to develop it.
“It’s time to leave now.”
Fentie accepted Edzerza’s resignation.
“Nothing in the political arena surprises me, and never has,” Fentie said Wednesday.
“It’s not my job to be disappointed. My job is to lead.”
Fentie thanked Edzerza for his “dedicated efforts” towards building educational reform, correctional reform and other initiatives like substance abuse action, and wished him well in “future endeavours.”
The Yukon Party will soon announce a candidate for McIntyre-Takhini, he added.
Tourism minister Elaine Taylor will be responsible for Education and Justice until the next cabinet is sworn in after the fall election, said Fentie.
“There’s a good chance we might even have a fall sitting.”
If so, the Yukon Party would sit with its majority reduced from 12 to nine, having lost Haakon Arntzen to criminal charges and Peter Jenkins to unpaid debts, and now Edzerza to political differences.
In order to receive a government pension, an MLA must serve at least six years.