The Yukon Legislative Assembly’s 2023 fall sitting is set to start on Oct. 4. In speaking with the News, the leadership of all three territorial parties highlighted several areas of mutual concern, including affordability, housing and the state of the territory’s health care system.
The upcoming sitting will be Premier Ranj Pillai’s first fall sitting in the big chair. Pillai calls the experience of being premier “humbling” and says Yukoners can expect “bold decisions” this fall.
“Yukoners want you to be able to talk directly to them, they want you to be able to be clear on where you want to go and what you want to get done. And that’s, you know, you’ll see that from me in the fall, it’s about bold decisions,” Pillai says.
All three leaders were active over the summer hiatus, busy engaging with Yukoners.
Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon, also the Official Opposition leader, says members of his caucus from rural areas returned home to reconnect with constituents. He adds he did his best over the summer to connect with people across the territory, attending community and First Nations events.
NDP leader Kate White says the Yukon NDP has been busy connecting with people in Whitehorse and the Yukon’s rural areas about their priorities over the summer. White made herself visible at several public events over the break, including the Pride parade in Whitehorse in August, the counter-protest to the “Million March 4 Children” earlier this month and meetings in unincorporated Yukon communities about the future of their transfer stations.
Pillai says he spent his summer meeting with First Nations leaders and other northern premiers and connecting with Yukoners at community events. He also participated in the government’s trade mission to Asia and attended the Council of Federation, a meeting of the leaders of all 13 provinces and territories, in July in Winnipeg.
“I mean, our team really didn’t stop. I know I’m energized going into this session. It’s my first fall session as a premier, and I like the discord, and I like the, you know, the debate downstairs.”
Housing and affordability
When asked about hot-button issues for the fall legislative sitting, Dixon raises affordability and housing as top priorities.
“We just think we’re going in the wrong direction currently, and so we’re going to use the legislature to raise the concerns that we have about the government’s actions or lack thereof on the cost of living,” Dixon says, noting that this is an area he hopes he can work on with the government.
“We have, over the past two years, proposed a number of new things — new policy measures — that we think would have been helpful, for instance, cutting the fuel tax. [Cutting] the fuel tax is one that we have proposed over and over again to the Yukon government. They haven’t taken us up on it yet, but we hope there’s always a chance they may reconsider.”
He adds that the government hasn’t moved with urgency to release more lots for home development and that landlords are pulling rental units from the market or selling them due to unfavourable policies. These issues, he says, are fuelling a housing shortage in the territory.
“There’s a range of things that we want to see the government take action on, [such as] getting land out and making the rental space more attractive for people to get involved in instead of fleeing from,” Dixon says.
White also stresses an emphasis on more housing in Whitehorse and rural Yukon. She highlights what she perceives as a need for more progress on government plans to develop lots at Fifth Avenue and Rogers Street and the site of the former Macaulay Lodge in Whitehorse.
“Housing is always a top priority […] and municipalities outside of Whitehorse, like rural Yukon, have said we need more building lots, we need to be able to build more housing. Because if we can’t build more housing, then we can’t attract people, or we can’t retain people,” White says.
Pillai tells the News that he also views affordability and housing as among his main priorities. He says he wants to “continue investing in housing” and that facilitating an increase in rental housing is a priority.
“We need to see more rental housing. That’s part of the reason that I signed an agreement with Ontario, you know, looking at investment to come in to have our local developers be able to look at long-term rental housing investments,” says Pillai, referencing the memorandum of understanding between the Yukon and Ontario on housing signed in May.
The premier adds that he, too, wants to see development at Fifth Avenue and Rogers Street underway.
“We’ll be working on a large tract of land, which is Fifth and Rogers. I want to get that out the door,” Pillai says.
All three leaders expressed that the state of health care services in the territory will need to be addressed during the fall sitting.
Pillai says the focus will be on “transforming health care” and that the government will have to be aggressive in recruiting nurses and training Yukoners to fill positions. As examples of efforts underway, he highlights a letter of intent between the Yukon and Nova Scotia governments on health human resources signed this summer and health care-focused conversations held in India during his recent visit.
Dixon and White, though, both reference closures and service reductions at rural health centres over the summer. Since May, there have been well over 100 days of temporary closures and reduced services at nearly half of the Yukon’s health centres. These service disruptions were due to a lack of health-care workers.
“One of the things that has been an issue […] that really is concerning to us is what seems to be a cutback of services in rural Yukon. We’ve seen periodic and ongoing closures of health centres around the territory. We’ve seen challenges raised by municipalities with EMS,” Dixon says, adding that he hopes to raise these issues during the upcoming sitting.
White notes the lack of family doctors and surgery wait times in Whitehorse as another issue to discuss. As part of the confidence and supply agreement between the Yukon Liberals and NDP, a new walk-in clinic has been promised for Whitehorse by January 2024. When asked if the clinic’s opening is on target, White says, “That’s my expectation.”
White highlights natural disasters in the Yukon over the summer, namely wildfires and flooding, as examples of why the NDP will question the government about its response to climate change.
“When we talk about floods, and we talk about wildfires, and landslides, and even in some cases, power outages due to wind, these are all effects of climate change […] And so we’ll have questions around actions that Yukon government is taking as far as climate change, or, you know, renewable energy generation, or, for example, emergency preparedness,” White says.
She hones in on the mass evacuation of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories over the summer due to an encroaching wildfire as an example of why emergency preparedness is important. At present, she says, the territory’s emergency plans are not available to the public, adding that she and her team will raise this issue in the legislature this fall.
The premier also views emergency preparedness as a significant topic of discussion following the events of this summer.
“Emergency preparedness, I think, will be part of the dialogue that happens in this in the chambers and that we’ll be really focusing on as we prepare for next year. The pressures that we had around floods and fires are not going to go away, you know, if anything, it’s going to become more dramatic in the future,” Pillai says, adding that there will be several “key pieces” of legislation to support the government’s climate change plan.
Pillai also says he will contact Ottawa in the coming weeks to discuss the need for emergency preparedness resources.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the fall sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly would end on Nov. 8. It has come to our attention the sitting will likely run beyond that date, and the article has been updated to reflect that.
Contact Matthew Bossons at firstname.lastname@example.org