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From dinner table debates to party politics

One minute, Arthur Mitchell was a pre-med student at University of Pennsylvania, scooping ice cream for pocket money. The next, the Liberal leader found himself at the end of the road in Atlin.

One minute, Arthur Mitchell was a pre-med student at University of Pennsylvania, scooping ice cream for pocket money.

The next, the Liberal leader found himself at the end of the road in Atlin, setting up a general store and proposing to his girlfriend so she’d come back after finishing her last semester.

The politics came decades later.

But in some ways, they’ve always been there.

As a small boy, Mitchell remembers debates around the dinner table.

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“Our conversations were always about politics,” he said. “It was a discussion and a debate and you had to hold your own. You couldn’t just say what you believed without being challenged on it.”

Little did Mitchell know how well this early dinner-debate training would serve him in the Yukon legislature, some 50 years later.

He didn’t realize the significance of a sidetrack to Atlin during a summer road trip to work on a buddy’s fishing boat in Alaska, either. But one night led to another, then a week, then 20 years, said Mitchell, who proposed to his wife Nancy in Atlin that summer of 1971.

Living in this isolated community, Mitchell soon found himself volunteering on almost every board and committee, including the Atlin District Board of Trade - its chamber of commerce, the local improvement district and the volunteer ambulance and fire crews.

When Mitchell heard a big mine was about to set up shop in the area, he also helped co-found the area’s land-use planning process “in order to balance development with protection.”

The move to Whitehorse came when his children were going through high school.

Mitchell was hired as executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce and later worked in real estate, but couldn’t kick his penchant for volunteering, serving on the city’s parks and recreation committee and on the Elijah Smith school council.

“I’ve always believed if you want to see something done, you need to get involved and do it,” said Mitchell.

It was only a matter of time, before this passion drove Mitchell into the Yukon government building, where he was scooped up by the Yukon Party to work in its cabinet offices.

That gig lasted less than two years.

“I learned a lot,” said Mitchell.

Mainly, that he’s a Liberal.

“I am a centrist,” he said.

“I have a strong social conscience, I was raised that way, but you have to be fiscally responsible to achieve these goals.”

Mitchell, who was elected in 2005, and re-elected a year later, figures he’s spent 325 days sitting in the legislature.

NDP Leader Liz Hanson has spent 30.

And Yukon Party Leader Darrell Pasloski has never sat in the house.

“It makes a difference,” said Mitchell.

Over the last six years, Mitchell has learned how important it is to listen to the public.

“I love representing people because all good ideas come from people, if you just listen,” he said.

If re-elected, Mitchell hopes there will be more co-operation in the house.

“We need to debate each other’s motions and work together,” he said, rather than the governing party adjourning debate on opposition motions on issues like affordable, supported housing.

Politicians need to be out there on the street interacting with people, he said.

“This is one thing I agree with (former premier Dennis) Fentie on, is that this is not just a job,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle.

“You have to love it.

“And you have to realize it’s not about you, and it’s not about a title, or being called premier.

“You have to realize you’re there for others.

“Our employers are Yukoners.”

Going door to door, Mitchell has been hearing about housing.

However, it’s not just homelessness that is a problem, he said. “But also you have single parents, teachers and government employees who are struggling to make rent.”

He’s also been hearing about the Peel.

“Every decision you make can’t be based on money,” said Mitchell, whose party supports the planning commission’s recommendation to protect 80 per cent of the watershed.

He remembers flying to Old Crow with Yukon regional Chief Eric Morris and looking out the window at the incredible scenery below.

During the flight, the two men started talking about the Peel and Morris reminded Mitchell of a First Nation saying, “We are the steward of the land for our grandchildren.”

“We have to remember that,” said Mitchell.

“We don’t own the land, we don’t own the economy, we get to borrow it for 60, 70, or 80 years.

“And we have to ensure the people who come after us have an opportunity to see it as it is and not only develop it.

“We can do both.”

The Liberals support a strong economy, said Mitchell.

“But we can’t make every decision based on where the highest stack of dollars will be.

“There has to be some places we look after because they restore our soul and are going to do that for the future.

“That’s the legacy I really want.

“I want people to look back and say, the elected leaders from 2011/2012 - and not just me, but the First Nations’ leaders and municipal leaders as well as the territorial - those leaders got it right.

“I want to leave behind a Yukon where there are less people struggling to put a roof over their heads, where people facing mental health challenges get the help they need, where our children are succeeding in school, where women don’t live in fear because of violence and assault, where First Nation cultures are respected, and where governments can move forward with economic success along with all Yukoners.

“I want to see a place where we don’t make every decision based only on dollar consequences.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at