Mitchell refocuses Liberals on people who fall through the cracks

Arthur Mitchell isn’t your run-of-the-mill businessman/Liberal leader. In fact, talk to the guy over coffee for, say, an hour and you’ll…

Arthur Mitchell isn’t your run-of-the-mill businessman/Liberal leader.

In fact, talk to the guy over coffee for, say, an hour and you’ll soon discover he’s a cross between Tommy Douglas and, say, Vancouver developer Jimmy Pattison.

Talk to him a little longer — say for another hour — and you’ll find out why.

For 35 years, Mitchell worked in business, operating a hardware and clothing store in the remote BC community of Atlin, serving as a business and communication consultant, an investor, a realtor and a property developer.

And you can’t help but think that his economic outlook has been refined by dinner conversations with his brother-in-law Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

That’s the right-leaning stuff.

Then there’s Mitchell’s left-leaning social side.

He’s sharply critical of Dennis Fentie’s lack of action on behalf of the territory’s least fortunate people.

“They’ve lost sight of the fact that having a strong economy is a means to an end and not an end in itself,” said the 55-year-old Liberal leader, sipping a café mocha topped with whipped cream at Zola’s Café.

Dennis Fentie’s blind obsession with strengthening the economy has let society’s underprivileged members fall through the cracks, he said.

“I think it’s important to give people employment, but there are social problems that stem from family abuse, ongoing effects of the residential schools experience, spousal abuse, and sexual abuse that are not solved by a job,” he said.

“I think that society is only as strong as how it treats its least fortunate people,” he said.

Sounds a lot like a page from the NDP playbook.

“I grew up in a very progressive, socially conscious family,” he said.

But in true Liberal Party form, Mitchell tries to match his social progressiveness with fiscal conservatism to balance things out.

“Dennis Fentie and I both share a belief that it’s important to be fiscally responsible — even though, as we trade barbs in Question Period, he’ll have challenged that this is my belief — but I think he probably knows better,” he said.

In any case, Mitchell suggests there are many Yukoners who have been lost in the equation in recent years.

This is the theme the Liberals will build in the runup to the territorial election, he said.

“We’re not going to give you our campaign slogan yet, but certainly it will be focused on people.”

This includes the poor, Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates, disenfranchised youth and residents of the communities.

Want an example of misplaced priorities?

Well, consider Fentie’s $3 million investment in a railroad feasibility study.

It has been a completely ineffectual exercise, and it is something private companies would be doing anyway, he said.

“We have an underground of youth who are crashing on people’s couches. There are sexual predators preying on young people (who) are not living with families any more.

“There’s a whole lot we can do with several million dollars to address those problems and would have a bigger impact on their society, so that’s somewhere where I have a philosophical disagreement with the current government,” he said.

Despite his compassionate social agenda, Mitchell knows Yukon economic prosperity must be a priority.

“We need to focus more on economic diversification,” he said, noting the communities are generally being left out in whatever economic success the territory has been having.

He also wants to plan for long-term economic prosperity.

“Right now we’re benefiting from a unique period of record-high base metal prices coinciding with almost record high precious metal prices and low interest rates.

“It’s not always going to be like that, so we have to look forward to everything from technology and innovation to things such as what the Yukon College can do to grow and evolve — the knowledge economy is very important,” he said.

Proper stakeholder consultation is also on Mitchell’s list — and it’s something the Yukon Party government has neglected.

“Consultation can’t be lip service, and it can’t be ‘We held an information session,’ or ‘We advertised a meeting and four people showed up and we’ve done our due diligence.’”

This is especially true of aboriginal people, he said.

“This is perhaps going to be the most important consultation over the next five years.

“I’ve heard Yukoners say, ‘Well we’ve settled land claims, what are they looking for now?’ They thought it was kind of like a tick on a scorecard: one more settlement, one more settlement, move on — it’s not.

“It’s just a doorway — it’s like getting high scores on your college entrance exams. The next era of implementation of these agreements will be very important.”

Mitchell was elected Liberal leader in June 2005, and won his Copperbelt seat in a November byelection, following the resignation of disgraced Yukon Party member Haakon Arntzen.

So what of Mitchell’s ankle-deep experience in politics?

Mitchell insists his background in many community organizations and sizeable consensus-making experience stands him in good stead.

“I didn’t come to this without some knowledge of working with people to get things done,” he said.

“My whole adult life I’ve always worked at different jobs that involved in one form or another community service.”

Nevertheless, his entry into the house has necessitated some cramming.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” said Mitchell.

“When I was first seated in the legislature, there was 13 days left in a 30-day session, so I had missed first and second reading on almost everything, and I didn’t have that opportunity to be there right from the beginning.

“It’s to Pat Duncan’s credit that she made the job so easy on me. I benefited from her experience in the legislature, sitting next to her able to pass notes and suggestions and point out things I might ask in debate.”

Ever since he first arrived in Atlin from New York with his future wife Nancy in 1971, he has been involved in non-partisan grassroots politics, said Mitchell.

He co-founded the Atlin visitor’s association, as well as the Area Land Lease Planning Commission.

He was chief of the local fire department.

When he moved to Whitehorse in 1992, he served on the Whitehorse Parks and Recreation Commission, Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, and Elijah Smith Elementary school council.

He also spent six years as executive director of Yukon Arts Centre Corporation.

After working on both of Larry Bagnells’ federal campaigns, he joined the Liberals in 2000.

He ran for office in 2002, but lost to Arntzen by 62 votes.

“I think running and losing was a good experience,” he said.

“I didn’t think so at the time, but you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.”

Now, his goal is to change the Liberal Party’s focus from Whitehorse to the communities.

He brings a small-town perspective to the party, he said.

“I lived for 20 years in Atlin — a community that ranged from 175 to 400 people depending on the year,” he said.

“Every Yukon community is different from each other, and I would never generalize that Atlin was the same as Carmacks any more than Carmacks is the same as Teslin or Haines Junction or Dawson — but they all share one thing in common, which is they look and they see that there is a much bigger centre.”

This summer, his only break will be a trip to see his daughter Rachel in Sacramento, California, and then over to New England to see his sister and parents.

When Mitchell gets back, it’ll be full campaign mode and he’ll be gearing up towards snagging the territory’s top political job.

“I think that I share with both of the other leaders (Todd Hardy and Fentie) is that I know they both believe they’re there for the better of Yukoners.

“And that’s our motivation.”