It came as a complete surprise to former Yukon NDP premier Tony Penikett when he got the call from the Governor General’s office informing him that he would be named to the Order of Canada “for his contributions as a teacher, negotiator and public servant, and his human rights activism”.
He still isn’t sure who nominated him.
“Not a clue,” he said in a Jan. 4 interview when asked if he had any idea who had put his name forward.
While there would traditionally be a Jan. 1 ceremony for new appointments, due to COVID-19 the ceremony for the 61 appointments that were revealed Dec. 30 will happen at a later date.
Penikett was the territory’s first Yukon NDP premier, serving in the role from 1985 to 1992 after becoming the party’s leader in 1981, three years after he was elected as the MLA for Whitehorse West in 1978.
Penikett emphasized the work of his government was done as a group focused on finding the best ways forward. The eight member caucus elected in the 1985 vote was the first in the country where half the members were Indigenous and half were non-Indigenous.
Current Liberal Premier Sandy Silver was quick to release a statement following the Dec. 30 announcement praising Penikett’s work both in government and in other roles.
“Mr. Penikett’s contributions to Yukon include completion of the Umbrella Final Agreement between the (governments) of Yukon, Canada and the Council for Yukon Indians (now the Council of Yukon First Nations),” Silver said. “The Umbrella Final Agreement is a landmark framework for First Nations land claims and self-governance in the territory.
“In his role as a legislator, public servant, advisor, educator, academic and author Mr. Penikett has shown generations of Yukoners and Canadians alike the value and results of hard work and determination, all while maintaining a great sense of humour and compassion.”
Education reform, changes to the territory’s Mental Health Act, environmental legislation and a new Human Rights Act were also among the things done during Penikett’s time as premier.
“We were busy,” Penikett recalled, noting there was a lot of controversy around the Human Rights Act at the time.
In some ways, he said, his government could be seen as trying to do much.
He noted the extensive work of many that went into the Umbrella Final Agreement and land claims negotiations at the time led to “a level of peace and prosperity” largely unseen elsewhere due to other governments and First Nations working on projects together.
He also recalled the Yukon 2000 initiative of his government to consult with Yukoners throughout the territory, finding shared values that helped determine the direction the government took on a variety of measures.
After serving as the territory’s premier Penikett would eventually move to B.C. where he served as a deputy minister in the B.C. government for some time. He has also worked as a university professor, is an author and works as a mediator and negotiator in the private sector.
Throughout that time, he has continued to work on projects involving the North including writing The Northern Character.
Prior to the pandemic, Penikett was part of the 40 @ -40 project, which saw veteran negotiators work to draft a “more readable” document from the Umbrella Final Agreement. In January 2020 he was in the territory for two days of meetings and work on the project that would create a “living document”
Along with the work to draft a nine-page document summarizing the core ideas of the UFA, a website, online discussions and other initiatives around the UFA were also planned as part of the project. Those plans were put on hold due to COVID.
Because the work will likely involve a number of in-person meetings that can’t happen right now due to the pandemic, Penikett said it’s on hold until restrictions can safely be lifted to allow those sessions to happen. He added though he is looking forward to continuing the 40 @ -40 work when it can happen.
Throughout the pandemic, the former Yukon premier has continued to work on his writing and has also been doing a lot of walking.
Asked what has kept him involved in the many projects and efforts over the years, Penikett said even in his younger years he didn’t like to be silent about things he didn’t like.
And that motivated him on a number of initiatives he’s worked on over the years.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org