Federal candidates talk poverty at first campaign forum

All but one of the Yukon's candidates shared their goals for fighting poverty this week at the first public forum of the territory's federal election campaign, an event that was heavy in rhetoric and light on content.

All but one of the Yukon’s candidates shared their goals for fighting poverty this week at the first public forum of the territory’s federal election campaign, an event that was heavy in rhetoric and light on content.

The event was hosted by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition on Tuesday evening, and attracted a crowd of about 50 people, including several members of the city’s homeless population. Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell and NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson were present, while Green candidate Frank de Jong phoned in from Dawson City. Conservative incumbent Ryan Leef did not attend.

Affordable housing was a major focus for all three candidates. It’s estimated there are at least 100 homeless people living in Whitehorse, and a recent study found that 13 per cent of renters spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.

Bagnell focused on the Liberal Party’s plan to invest nearly $20 billion over 10 years in social infrastructure, including affordable housing.

“You can’t do anything else unless you have housing,” he said.

When asked how much of that money the Yukon would see, Bagnell said he wasn’t sure, but it would likely be more than a proportional amount based on the territory’s population.

For her part, Atkinson touted the NDP’s plan to develop an affordable housing act, and said her party would bring in a tax break to promote construction of 10,000 affordable housing units in Canada in the next 10 years. She also said the NDP would recognize housing as a human right.

“I believe that nobody should be left behind in our communities,” she said.

But de Jong accused Atkinson of speaking in platitudes. “Let’s get down to business,” he said.

He suggested the federal government could set up a system where people could build privately owned housing on government-owned land, meaning they would only have to pay for the housing, not the land. “It would reduce the cost of housing roughly by half, because the land is a very large component in the cost of housing.”

He also said private developers should be required to build a certain number of affordable housing units alongside new market housing.

A number of audience members also wanted to know what the candidates would do to provide jobs and opportunities for young people in the Yukon.

“Our kids have to go to B.C. to go to work. Why is that?” one man asked.

Bagnell said a Liberal government would create 40,000 youth jobs each year for the next three years. He also said the party’s plan to invest $60 billion in infrastructure would create more jobs, including in sustainable development.

Atkinson referred to the NDP plan to create a $15 minimum wage for federal workers, while de Jong focused on cutting taxes to businesses to stimulate the local private-sector economy.

Though this wasn’t a formal debate, the atmosphere in the room was heated at times. More than once, the candidates found themselves confronted viscerally by some of the issues they were trying to address in abstract terms. At one point, one homeless man challenged the candidates to spend a night outside during a Whitehorse winter.

“You never fucking missed a meal in your lives, I bet,” he yelled.

And at end of the evening, not everyone was satisfied with what they’d heard from the candidates.

“I’m looking for the answers to the Yukon. What will we receive? And so no one could answer that question for me tonight,” said Gerard Tremblay. “We need the facts, and that’s what I’m looking for. I didn’t really feel like they were precise enough.”

Contact Maura Forrest at