On Nov. 19, the Liberal government voted down its own Electoral District Boundaries Act. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Electoral boundaries act defeated, a move a member of the commission is blasting

The Liberals voted against the bill on Nov. 19

The Liberals voted down its own Electoral District Boundaries Act on Nov. 19, a move that a member of the independent commission says is a first in the commonwealth and, even more bluntly, is incompetent.

“No sitting government in the history of our nation has ever defeated the final report by the electoral boundaries commission,” said Darren Parsons, who was appointed by Premier Sandy Silver to the Yukon Electoral District Boundaries Commission, a non-partisan body tasked with making recommendations on electoral reform.

Parsons said it’s unilateral, an “attack on the commission,” and a move that’s vulnerable to the perception of gerrymandering.

That, he continued, or worse, in that it could be an instance of sheer thoughtlessness – of “incompetence.”

“I think what we see here is a lack of understanding of the process, a lack of foresight, a lack of thought, a lack of participation in the process and, ultimately, the incompetence that we’re seeing displayed here is exceeded only by the lack of leadership,” Parsons said.

The bill was defeated with seven in favour and 11 against.

Every Liberal MLA was opposed.

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers was the only member of the Official Opposition who voted against the bill, citing constituent concerns, many of whom did not agree with the introduction of an extra seat.

The NDP voted in favour.

The primary reason behind the Liberal’s decision, it appears, was an apparent discrepancy found between the commission’s interim report, released in 2017, and its final version, which came out in April. The creation of a 20th riding was apparently absent in the interim report, which, as the Liberals said during the bill’s second reading, cut consultation work short afterwards.

NDP Leader Liz Hanson said during the debate that the commission wasn’t in an ivory tower doing its work.

“They were going out and talking to Yukon citizens where they live and hearing what they know on the ground about what is actually going to happen,” she said.

Ensuring that Yukoners have effective representation, Hanson continued, is what the review is all about.

“This is not about one caucus or another caucus’s view of this. It’s independent. It’s about reflecting what Yukon citizens need in terms of ensuring accurate representation in here — representative of the nature of our whole territory. It’s not whether we like it. This is the voice of Yukoners speaking through this non-partisan commission who operated on consensus,” she said.

Another concern coming from the Liberal bench was that voting populations of certain ridings were dramatically different than the interim report. The national standard says to only change the voting population by plus or minus 25 per cent.

“The proposal that we are debating today,” Silver said on the floor of the House the day the bill was defeated, “has a majority of the ridings outside of that variance — 11 of 20 ridings are outside of the 25 per cent variance under the new plan.”

The News asked Silver on Nov. 20 what will happen going forward now that the bill has been trashed.

“It goes back to the status quo,” he said.

“To me, and this government, it has to be as a whole. It’s either you agree to it as a whole or do what we did, which is – there are parts to it we really felt was lacking consultation in the 20th riding,” Silver said, noting that the recommendation was studied closely.

“This is a dramatic change from the interim report to the final and that’s very concerning,” he said, noting that the development of a 20th riding wasn’t “really part of the conversation.”

“I think a lot of people were surprised to see a final draft that had a 20th riding introduced very late in the game and the vast majority of the consultation had already occurred without this notion being part of that discussion,” Silver continued.

He said it would be “bold” to amend the plan at this stage, “to go in there and cherry pick, basically.”

“It’s simply something this government is not willing to do,” he said. “It’s either we had to accept it as a whole or reject it on a principle.”

Parsons disagrees.

“He can cherry pick, if he chooses. He can take bits and pieces of the final report for implementation. He could take, for example, the interim report and implement that instead of the final report,” he said, adding that Silver could have also spurred a do-over of the whole thing.

But there’s a caveat to that, because the process was never meant to be a “single desk decision.”

“The process is meant to be conducted in the light of day for all Yukoners to participate in really, truly, genuinely non-partisan way,” Parsons said.

He added that Silver’s suggestion that the commission insufficiently consulted Yukoners is “disingenuous and factually incorrect.”

Public hearings were hosted in 12 communities, Parsons said.

“The potential for the addition of a 20th seat was raised at the very first meeting of the commission and every member of the House was aware of the potential for a 20th seat was there,” he said. “It was no surprise. I can tell you that with absolute certainty.”

The final report recommended the creation of a 20th riding, which would have combined Carmacks, Ross River and Faro.

“To address Ross River’s concerns and keep it from out of the cold,” Parsons said, referring to bolstered representation for the community in the legislative assembly.

“I would say the Liberals didn’t like the look of the new map,” said Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard, whose riding is Pelly-Nisutlin, which includes Ross River and Faro. “Obviously they thought it was going to jeopardize their chances in the next election…”

Another component was the redistribution affecting the boundaries of 12 existing districts.

“The proposed addition and redistribution are needed to accommodate growth, to connect areas that share common characteristics and transportation patterns, and to address the effect of limited accessibility and significant distances between communities,” the report says.

Parsons told the News that growth within Whitehorse’s limits will indeed grow, “exponentially,” specifically in Whistle Bend. By 2021, he said, there’s projected to be about 3,000 voters in that area alone.

“As much as 10,000 by 2030,” he said.

Migration to urban centres is a trend in Canada, and the Yukon is very much a part of that equation.

“The perception in rural Yukon is that they’re being left out of the discussion, that they’re being left out of the decision, that overwhelming political influence resides in Whitehorse. The goal was to preserve that rural, urban split, to help to ensure rural Yukon would have a strong voice in the legislative assembly,” Parsons said, which is why it was proposed to have fewer voters in rural ridings than Whitehorse, he added.

There would have been 11 seats in the city and nine in rural areas.

The report outlined challenges of effective representation for Pelly-Nisutlin electoral district and increasing population growth and community development in Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes.

Significant proposed changes include redistribution of the Pelly-Nisutlin district, combining the southern portions of Pelly-Nisutlin and Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes.

There was also a proposed redistribution of electoral districts in Porter Creek, in light of projected growth in Whistle Bend. The Porter Creek electoral district would include established neighbourhoods of Porter Creek south of Wann Road, and from Range Road to the Alaska Highway. Whistle Bend would include “recent, ongoing and projected growth in the new neighbourhood.” Whitehorse North would include the majority of the area north of Wann Road, as well as MacKenzie, Kulan, Crestview, MacPherson and Hidden Valley.

The commission was chaired by Justice Ron Veale. Members included Anne Tayler, Jonas Smith and Parsons. Each member was appointed by a separate political party.

Electoral boundaries are reviewed every other election.

With files from Amy Kenny

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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