As if an alarm clock went off on St. Patrick’s Day, all three parties in this year’s election have woken up wearing green.
More than 100 people gathered Monday night at the Yukon Inn to hear NDP candidate Peter Lesniak, Liberal candidate Mike Walton and Yukon Party candidate Patrick Rouble present the environmental platform of their respective parties.
On the eve of an election, the debate signals a seachange in the Yukon’s political outlook, said John Streicker, former director of the Northern Climate Exchange and moderator of the debate.
“Two years ago, I was still arguing with politicians whether climate change was real,” said Streicker. “Now, everyone understands it’s real.”
It appears concern for green issues from all three parties in 2006 is also real — even Yukon Party mandarin Rick Neilson was in the crowd.
But key differences emerged during the debate.
During his opening remarks, Rouble accidentally substituted the word “economy” for “environment” — later joking that he’d made a “Freudian slip” to a chorus of laughs.
The Yukon Party’s green plan is composed of ensuring healthy and safe communities, protecting the environment, studying climate change, developing an indigenous economy and good governance, said Rouble.
“It’s a common misconception the Yukon Party’s only focus is on the economy,” he said.
And throughout the debate, Rouble argued a balance between the economy and environmental concerns is achievable.
The Liberal Party is committed to emissions targets, providing $250,000 for housing retrofits, eliminating diesel electricity generation, a freeze on coal-bed methane development and hosting a Porcupine caribou summit, said Walton.
“Under the current government, the environment department has been cut back and muzzled,” he said.
The NDP is committed to protecting major river watersheds, establishing protected areas, upholding environmental regulations on mining and other developments, creating a climate change strategy and funding cancelled environmental initiatives.
“I’m thrilled to see the important role the environment is taking in this election campaign,” said Lesniak.
The war between land-use planning and development dominated the debate.
The Liberals support land planning, “however, we’re not suggesting we’ll stop a development in the absence of land-use planning,” said Walton.
“Clearly, development is going to happen.”
The creation of a land-use planning department more than a decade ago hasn’t quite smoothed competing interests, said Rouble.
Despite that, “we do have a good, strong, regulatory framework which allows for responsible development,” he said.
Like the Liberals, the NDP will not prevent development in the absence of planning, but will hold mining companies accountable for taxes and cleanup, said Lesniak.
“We’re not anti-mining,” he said.
“But if we’re talking about a new project in a pristine area, then definitely, we do need planning to go ahead with development,” he said.
The Yukon Party’s scheme of paying former mining executives to navigate through red tape for prospective mining companies in the Yukon came under fire.
Both Rouble and Walton committed to keeping the system in place.
But Lesniak was less receptive to the pathfinder concept.
“It smacks of fast-tracking,” he said. “It just seems open to abuse.”
Climate change also came under scrutiny.
An NDP government will re-instate money for the climate change developments it set up a decade ago, and come up with a concrete strategy, said Lesniak.
A Liberal government would instate efficiency targets for government vehicles, a “green tendering process” for buildings, and establish baselines to quantify climate change, said Walton.
The Yukon Party has committed to building a cold-climate research centre at Yukon College, and has already released its climate change strategy, said Rouble.
Protecting the Porcupine caribou herd, which is seeing its numbers fall drastically in recent months, is a political football that all parties are willing to run with.
“Any time Yukon politicians have met with the federal government or with Alaskans, they have carried the message of the Porcupine caribou herd and Old Crow,” said Rouble.
“We will continue to lobby Alaska.”
Lesniak committed an NDP government to work with the four First Nations that are dependent on the herd and ensure the winter range for the herd is protected.
Walton, who sat on the Porcupine management board, committed to hosting a summit to examine the herd’s problems.
Concerns about water in Champagne, east of Haines Junction, brought drinking water into the debate, and all three parties have water strategies.
“This situation in Champagne is scandalous,” said Lesniak.
As the candidates closed, Lesniak took a swipe at Rouble and the Yukon Party’s green record.
“We stand at a crossroads,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it’s Dennis Fentie’s vision of the Yukon that we’ve been pursuing.”
On cue, someone yelled out to Rouble: “You’re an endangered species!”
The coalition presented six issues for debate and got varying commitments and answers from the candidates.
But the next government, regardless of who forms it, must deal with key issues, said Jim Pojar, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon.
“If they get the message, they’ve got to do something about climate change,” said Pojar.
“They’ve got to protect the Porcupine caribou herd; we need more protected areas, we need water and watersheds protected, and they must speed up land use planning.”