Jake Epp, father of modern politics, celebrated for his legacy

The Yukon should strive to become a province, said Jake Epp, the man who many say brought responsible government to the Yukon.

The Yukon should strive to become a province, said Jake Epp, the man who many say brought responsible government to the Yukon.

Provincial status would ruffle some feathers in Ottawa, said Epp, a former Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister, at a banquet held in his honour Saturday night.

But it’s the natural next step in the Yukon’s long struggle to wrestle powers away from the federal government, known as devolution, he said.

“I remember one person saying to me in the department in Ottawa: ‘Mr. Minister, we will never transfer resources north of 60 and make another Alberta out there,’” Epp said to the hundred or so people in attendance.

Becoming a province would lead the Yukon toward economic self-sufficiency, he said.

“What would be wrong with everyone north of 60 getting a steady income, getting an above average income compared with the rest of Canada, and paying taxes like everyone else?” said Epp.

“What’s wrong with that model? What am I missing?”

Epp should know about making Yukoners masters in their own home.

As a minister in Joe Clark’s brief Progressive Conservative government in 1979, Epp wrote the single most important document in the Yukon’s modern-day history, according to some historians.

The “Epp Letter,” as it is known, was a ministerial letter forcing the commissioner, who at the time was the Yukon’s chief executive, to abandon many of her powers to the elected Yukon council.

Before the letter, the commissioner wasn’t bound to govern on the advice of Yukoners.

But after Epp, the post was reduced to an anachronistic figurehead.

“The letter says simply, Mr. or Mrs. Commissioner, take the advice of your elected people,” said Epp.

“That did cause some consternation in some circles.”

Ione Christensen, the commissioner at the time, resigned when she received the letter.

Christensen was effectively stripped of her powers. She was removed from the executive committee, which had previously been shared with elected officials. She was also bound to take the advice of the executive committee and rubber stamp anything they passed.

Christensen even had to remove her offices from the Yukon government building.

On Saturday, historians and politicians alike celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Epp Letter at a banquet held in the main hall of the Yukon’s government building. The dinner capped off a three-day conference on Yukon, Alaska and aboriginal political history.

Epp offered a behind-the-scenes look at the drafting of his eponymous letter.

Judd Buchanan, a predecessor of Epp’s from Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, once confided his jealousy of Epp for writing the letter.

“After I sent the letter, I was leaving the parliamentary restaurant, on the sixth floor of the centre block,” said Epp, referring to the in-house restaurant frequented by politicians on Parliament Hill. “The elevator was full and they were all ragging at me, just going at it as people do when the cameras are off.

“And when we got to the basement, there was only two of us left, me and Judd Buchanan,” said Epp. “And Judd said to me, ‘I’m so mad at you.’ And I said, ‘Is it because of the letter?’”

“He said ‘Yeah. I got the same advice and I didn’t write it.’”

Bureaucrats had been advising each minister to transfer the Yukon commissioner’s power to the legislature for years, said Epp. In 1976, Buchanan did advise the Yukon’s commissioner to prepare for responsible government, but it was Epp who finally took the dive.

It was easier to sell the idea to Clark’s power circle, said Epp.

“This will sound partisan, again, I don’t mean it that way,” he said. “It was easy for me as a new minister to take an interest, and to take to cabinet the changes we had.”

Though Clark’s government would only last nine months, it was able to dramatically advance democracy in the Yukon.

The letter’s recommendations had been making their way through the bureaucratic woodwork for years, said Epp.

Others were slipped into the letter when it was drafted, including permitting the title of premier and ministers for the elected officials in the executive council, also known as cabinet.

“Why not?” said Epp. “Why should they have a different status? Is there any good reason?”

Epp also opened up about why he felt responsible government was so important for the Yukon.

“I’ve never said this publicly before, but from a personal point of view, the change I wanted to make had been instilled in me by my father, who never saw the Yukon,” he said.

Epp’s father was a Mennonite born in the Ukraine at the end of the 19th century. He travelled to Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities to become a medical doctor.

But when the First World War broke out, Epp’s father was forced into Tsar Nicholas II’s army, to work on a troop train carrying injured soldiers.

When the Russian civil war broke out, which would eventually end with Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks on top, Epp senior tried to make a difference.

He helped support pro-democratic forces in setting up a makeshift parliament in 1917.

That parliament didn’t last the chaos, and Epp’s father eventually emigrated to Manitoba.

“My father said, despite his background, ‘Jake, we didn’t grow up in a democracy. We don’t have that British experience of democracy, but we have a responsibility to be democratic,’” said Epp.

“I don’t think, looking back at the letter 30 years later, that there’s a lot of undemocratic stuff said in that letter.”

Before writing the letter, Epp was urged to make it public by advisers.

“The advice I got that if I made it public no one would dare change it, proved to be true,” he said.

“Nobody’s changed it yet.”

Epp went on to applaud the changes to the Yukon’s political institutions since his letter, including First Nation self-government agreements.

“The burden of my argument is this:” said Epp, “You don’t withdraw things from citizens, you give them the rights of every other citizen, and you let them decide what their association and stance will be.”

Epp, who lives in Calgary, received a standing ovation following his speech. It was the keynote speech of the “Governing Under the Midnight Sun” conference, which also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Yukon legislature and the 50th anniversary of Alaskan statehood.

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