The Yukon Legislative Assembly wrapped up the fall sitting Nov. 27. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Fall sitting of Yukon legislature wraps up

‘It turns out that red is a lot more like blue than anyone expected’

Nearly a year after his Liberal MLAs were sworn into office, Premier Sandy Silver sung their praises while opposition parties expressed frustration with the government’s response to questions.

The Yukon Legislative Assembly wrapped up the fall sitting Nov. 27. The Liberal government passed 11 pieces of legislation since the sitting started in October.

Many were administrative, such as amendments to the legal and dental profession acts. Others carried more heft, including changes to the workers compensation rules which mean first responders won’t have to prove their post-traumatic stress disorder is work-related to be covered.

Changes to the Airports Act first appeared likely to fall under the mundane administrative category. Until now, the Yukon was the only jurisdiction in Canada without a comprehensive act covering the rules at its airports.

Instead, airlines, advocacy groups and municipalities began complaining, first over concerns about the possibility of an airport tax and then over accusations that the government had not consulted enough.

The Liberals promised not to implement an airport tax, though the act does allow for one. They also made a new advisory committee mandatory, which appeared to put industry concerns to rest.

The government pulled down its old press release announcing the act and replaced it with one that made no mention of consultation.

Silver denied his government has an issue with consultation.

“Being beaten up on the Airports Act by one of the opposition parties, I don’t think that’s necessarily what we would look at to see if we’re doing engagement correctly or not,” he said.

Instead he pivoted to the government’s consultation on cannabis legislation which saw a record number of people complete a survey. He also highlighted the hundreds of people who participated in the Yukon’s financial advisory panel’s final report.

The panel released its final report this sitting. With looming deficits, it is supposed to help the government come up with ways to improve the territory’s financial future.

While the premier has ruled out government employee layoffs, changes to royalty rates or an HST as options, he has so far refused to say what he plans to do to change the territory’s financial future.

“But you will see the ramifications of the report in this budget coming up,” Silver said.

“We’re looking at it in a three-phase approach. What can we do to affect this budget, what can we do in the next four budgets and what can we do on a longer 10 year plan to continue and maintain fiscal responsibility.”

The 2018-19 territorial budget will come out during the next sitting which starts March 1.

Silver said he won’t “speculate” on whether the territory will run a deficit.

Yukon Party interim leader Stacy Hassard accused the government of being “very vague in providing answers and details.”

He criticized the government for not releasing more information on the federal carbon tax. It is slated to become law in 2018. Silver continued to insist he was waiting for more information from Ottawa.

“The government has had a year since they’ve signed on to the carbon tax. We’ve asked questions in the spring sitting as well as again here in the fall sitting as well as today and still we have no details from the premier and it’s unfortunate,” Hassard said.

Questions around housing and hospital beds — particularly the lack of continuing care beds in the territory — took up a sizeable portion of this sitting.

Whitehorse General Hospital is so crowded that last year it spent half the time over capacity. This summer officials started transferring patients to hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City with or without the consent of patients or their families.

Hassard said there’s more the government could be doing.

“There’s definitely facilities or spaces throughout the city that they maybe could be looking at, they could be working more in terms of home care. There are options out there for the government.”

The NDP’s Kate White pressured the government to get consent from patients before moving them to community hospitals.

She also pushed for changes to the minimum wage and improvements for mobile home owners. White said she expected more answers.

“I think one thing that I would caution the territory is that right now, their optimism, maybe they should rein that back a bit because it turns out that red is a lot more like blue than anyone expected.”

Minister Pauline Frost faced many questions this sitting and sometimes struggled.

Most recently, she couldn’t provide basic information about a promise to construct a housing first-style building in Whitehorse even though the government’s tender for the building contained the details.

Previous governments have saddled the health and social services minister with few responsibilities beyond that large portfolio. The past two ministers were also responsible for the workers’ compensation board.

Frost, on the other hand, is the minister of health and social services, environment and is also responsible for the housing corporation.

Silver denied he had divided the workload unfairly amongst his ministers and said a cabinet shuffle is not in the works.

“I’m happy with the work that my ministers have done with their portfolios.”

The justice minister also had a busy sitting.

Following an investigation by the Toronto Star, the government’s practise of quietly settling lawsuits over sexual abuse allegations became public this sitting.

Though the Yukon Department of Justice refused to provide details to the national newspaper about the scope of the problem, Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee eventually admitted the government has spent $2.5 million on settling approximately 40 sexual abuse lawsuits since 2000.

McPhee also announced an independent investigation into the treatment of inmates with mental health concerns at Whitehorse’s jail.

That report is slated to be handed in to the government by March 29, 2018. The department will release the final report and its response to the public by June 29, 2018.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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