The Yukon legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. This year, the longest Yukon legislature sitting in 25 years concluded on Dec. 22. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

The Yukon legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. This year, the longest Yukon legislature sitting in 25 years concluded on Dec. 22. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Marathon fall legislature sitting ends

The extended sitting was dominated by COVID-19 and partisan sniping

The longest Yukon legislature sitting in 25 years concluded on Dec. 22.

The fall sitting was a marathon — in order to make up for a short spring sitting that was interrupted by COVID-19, it was extended to 45 days and sat almost three months from Oct. 1 to Dec. 22.

During that time several new bills received assent, the government faced pressure around decisions related to COVID-19 and the stage was set for an election that could be called before the next sitting.

House business

Several new government bills were given royal assent during the sitting. Among them were supplementary budgets that included funds for the tourism industry, and additional COVID-19 healthcare funding.

Led by a group of students from Porter Creek Secondary School, new legislation that aims to ban homophobic and transphobic conversation therapy was passed under the title of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection Act.

The Act to Amend the Environment Act will also give the environment minister the power to bring in a ban on single-use plastics.

Bills that got less attention included a change to the Land Titles Act that will make it easier for First Nations to develop their settlement lands in the territory.

A change to the Employment Standards Act will allow government-regulated employees to take paid time off in order to care for themselves or support others in cases of domestic or sexualized violence.

Finally, the government passed a new law that requires fixed election dates. The new legislation won’t be in effect until after the territorial election next year.

While the government passed all the bills it set out at the onset, question period was characterized by the usual bickering and long-winded questions and answers intended just as often at insulting the opposing party as they were to obtain or provide information.

As repeat questions came up late in the session, they were often deflected by exasperated ministers as energy levels and patience for criticism flagged as the sitting went on.

For his part, Premier Sandy Silver said his ministers endeavored to provide information and the pandemic affected nearly every portfolio.

“I think the whole team came together during the pandemic,” he said.

COVID-19 scrutiny

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 often dominated discussions in the house and question period.

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee was repeatedly called on to defend decisions made under the education portfolio, including the availability of busing for students, the decision to reduce Whitehorse high schools to half-day in-classroom teaching and the move of the MAD program outside of Wood Street School.

Similarly, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost was called on for questions related to COVID-19 impacted services at the Whitehorse shelter.

Community Services Minister John Streicker, who has been in charge of the ministerial orders and other powers granted under the act, also faced scrutiny for his decisions.

The opposition parties took different tacts — NDP leader Kate White said her party decided early not to question public health decisions related to advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Health, such as border closures.

That didn’t leave the Liberal party off the hook. Many of the most intense discussions on the floor of the house centered around White criticizing government support programs and questioning whether they were enough for the territory’s most vulnerable essential workers.

During the sitting, the government did choose to extend the wage top-up program. Other demands — including a six-month rent freeze and a permanent increase for minimum wage — went ignored by the majority government.

“[The sitting] was long. And I think we got to see a bit more of people’s kind of true colors come through by the end of it,” said White while answering questions following the last question period. “The work that I did was trying to amplify people’s concerns and their voices.”

Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon said his party had a different perspective coming into the house. During the sitting MLAs questioned various COVID-19 decisions — including border closures, use of ministerial orders and mandatory masks and information gathering.

In response, the Liberals often accused the party of sowing seeds of doubt or spreading misinformation.

“It’s always been our view that the advice of Dr. Hanley and the folks in his office is a very important source of information for the government. But it’s not the only source of information. I think that in a lot of cases, they made decisions that were based on advice from Dr. Hanley, but not exactly what he said,” Dixon said in an interview following the sitting, referring to half-day classroom teaching as an example.

“Ultimately, the premier has ministers that make the decisions and therefore need to be held accountable,” he said.

The parties will continue to get their chance to take a closer look at the use of the Civil Emergency Measures Act over the summer.

Following the sitting, three MLAs – one from each party – will meet to study the Act, its use during the pandemic and suggest reforms. The committee will be composed of Streicker, NDP MLA Liz Hanson and Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers.

The committee is required to report back before Aug. 31, 2021.

Election looming

The Liberals will be required to call an election sometime prior to Nov. 18, 2021.

On the last day of the sitting on Dec. 22, Premier Sandy Silver refused questions about when his government will choose to call an election.

“We’re just finishing this session right now. You’re asking me when the election is? I’m saying my mind is not there right now,” Silver said.

It is likely that the coming months will see more activity as the three parties consider candidates for each riding and solidify election platforms.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

Yukon legislative assembly

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