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UPDATED: Remembering former premier Dennis Fentie

‘He was a down-to-earth truck-driving type guy.’
Former premier Dennis Fentie died of cancer on Aug. 30. Fentie is being remembered as a passionate Yukoner who fought to make the territory a better place. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)

A passionate Yukoner who fought to make the territory a better place.

That’s how former premier Dennis Fentie is being remembered.

Fentie died of cancer on Aug. 30.

Those who worked alongside Fentie, across the floor in the legislature or with him in other capacities, have recalled his fight to improve the lives of Yukoners. He did not back down.

As Yukon Senator – and former Liberal premier who was defeated in the 2002 election by Fentie’s Yukon Party – Pat Duncan put it: “He was a tireless champion of Watson Lake and Southeast Yukon, especially the forestry and mining industry in the Legislature in Piers McDonald’s government. His strong advocacy for the Yukon continued in Opposition with the Yukon Party and as premier.”

Duncan’s statement was among many made by officials of all political stripes following Fentie’s passing.

Fentie served as the territory’s seventh premier for nearly a decade from 2002 to 2011 under the Yukon Party banner as the MLA for Watson Lake.

That was after his political career began in 1996 when he was elected as Watson Lake’s NDP MLA. He was again elected under as the NDP MLA in 2000, but crossed the floor to the Yukon Party in May 2002 just a month before he was selected as party leader.

The Yukon Party would go on to win the election that year, taking 12 of the 18 seats in the legislature.

His majority government elected in 2002 was reduced to a minority in 2006 with the resignations of three MLAs.

The party won its majority status back in the 2006 general election.

Fentie’s political career ended in 2011 when in April he announced he was stepping down as premier and would not seek re-election.

Darrell Pasloski took over the party leadership and would serve as premier from 2011 to 2016.

Fentie’s move across the floor of the house is one of the first memories Yukon MP Larry Bagnell has of the former premier.

The continued election wins regardless of party banner showed voters supported Fentie as an individual, Bagnell said in an Aug. 30 interview.

And Fentie’s stand on certain issues didn’t always mesh with party politics, Bagnell said. As a Yukon Party premier, Fentie pushed for a number of socially progressive initiatives one may associate more with the left side of the political spectrum while as an NDP member he pushed for initiatives farther to the right.

Like many remembering Fentie, Bagnell recalled the stand taken by the territorial premiers resulting in greater healthcare funding from Ottawa to the three territories.

In 2003, the three territorial premiers refused to sign off on a health accord with Ottawa meant for all provinces and territories. They argued the deal did not reflect the realities and costs of delivering services in the North.

As Fentie said at the time: “An ambulance ride in Ottawa is a plane ride in the territories.”

A new funding arrangement was eventually reached with the territories reflecting those realities, said both current Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard and former Yukon Party Southern Lakes MLA Patrick Rouble, who served under Fentie’s leadership.

Rouble made it clear the healthcare deal was not the only benefit resulting from the negotiations.

“It led to a new approach for the North,” Rouble said, highlighting Fentie’s ability to bring together a diverse group of people for a common cause.

Fentie was “a champion for his community” driven by a desire to benefit the Yukon.

Fentie was smart, engaged and continually took in any information that came his way on an issue, he added.

“The expectation was high to keep up,” Rouble said with a laugh, “patience was not one of his virtues.”

Fentie also ensured bureaucrats in the territory were well aware of the issues facing individual Yukoners, insisting government staffers were on-hand for the annual community tours.

That’s where Fentie and other Yukon Party MLAs would visit each community, meeting with First Nations, mayor and council and school councils as well as hosting public meetings to speak with residents.

As Hassard described: “He was a down-to-earth, truck-driving type guy.”

Hassard was elected in 2011 after Fentie had retired, but knew him informally before that. His brother Dean also served as the Yukon Party MLA for Pelly-Nisutlin from 2002 to 2006 under Fentie’s leadership.

Fentie knew the importance of holding his ground when it came to the dealing with the big issues like health care. It is thanks to Fentie’s efforts that both Watson Lake and Dawson City have hospitals, Hassard said.

Watson Lake Mayor Cheryl O’Brien also cited the establishment of the hospital, along with improvements to the Robert Campbell Highway and Fentie’s push to increase industry in Watson Lake as a few of his accomplishments for his riding.

“The community is quite saddened,” she said in a Sept. 3 interview.

O’Brien first met Fentie years ago and he would live up to those first impressions she had of him as someone who was kind, very straight-forward and followed through on what he said he would do.

“He worked tirelessly for our community and has in turn provided us with a healthier and higher standard of living,” she said. “We will forever be indebted to his contributions to Watson Lake, the Yukon and Canada.”

Accolades highlighting his passion and work benefitting the territory have also come in from the Yukon NDP; Kwanlin Dün First Nation; Association of Yukon Communities; and Golden Predator Mining Corp. (where Fentie had served on the board of directors.)

His career was not without controversy. It was revealed Fentie had spent time in prison in 1975 for drug trafficking, but was fully pardoned for the offence in 1996.

Prior to politics, Fentie worked in various industries around Watson Lake including logging, trucking and more, including as the owner and former manager of Francis River Construction.

Originally from Edmonton, Fentie moved to Watson Lake in the 1960s.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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