Weight of expectation follows Silver to Ottawa

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the first time as territorial leader on Thursday.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the first time as territorial leader on Thursday.

Silver is in Ottawa for meetings of Canada’s first ministers this week. The leaders are expected to announce a national climate change strategy today, and to discuss health care funding with the prime minister this evening.

On Thursday, Trudeau tweeted a welcome to Yukon’s new premier, saying he was “looking forward to working together to fight climate change & protect our environment.”

Silver tweeted at the prime minister to thank him for the meeting. “We agree, a gender balanced cabinet is key,” he wrote. Three of Yukon’s seven new cabinet ministers are women, while Trudeau made history last year when his cabinet was the first in Canadian history to reach gender parity.

But Silver’s first trip to the capital as premier is about more than photo ops with other leaders.

The national climate change strategy is expected to include details about carbon pricing, a contentious issue during Yukon’s election campaign. The former Yukon Party government was adamantly opposed to a carbon tax in the territory. Silver insisted that a federal carbon price is on its way, and that the Yukon Liberals will make sure all the revenue from the new tax goes back to Yukoners.

But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has said he will not sign any agreement on carbon pricing today.

On Thursday, interim Yukon Party leader Stacey Hassard said he would “certainly” refuse to sign the agreement if he were in Silver’s shoes.

“I think all along I’ve been very strong in saying that I don’t believe we should have a carbon tax,” he told the News. “It was the number one topic when I was door-knocking in the election.”

NDP Leader Liz Hanson said she hopes Silver will return to the Yukon “prepared to explain to Yukoners clearly what principles will guide how carbon pricing will be implemented in the Yukon.”

She said the Liberals have been vague about what they would do with carbon tax revenue. The NDP campaigned on a commitment to spend half the revenue on rebates for low-income Yukoners and half on renewable energy.

But carbon pricing isn’t the only issue on the premiers’ agenda this week.

Trudeau has agreed to discuss health care funding with provincial and territorial leaders during a working dinner this evening.

The first ministers are in the process of negotiating a new health accord, but a planned cut in the rate of increase of the federal health transfer to the provinces and territories has been a major sticking point.

Currently, the health transfer increases by six per cent each year. But that is slated to drop to as little as three per cent in April 2017. The premiers have complained that a three per cent increase is too low.

The Trudeau government has also promised to spend an extra $3 billion over four years on home care. The CBC is now reporting that the feds may be willing to expand that funding, but only if it’s spent on mental health and home care.

Hanson said more funding for mental health and home care is needed, but she hopes the premiers will continue to pressure Trudeau to maintain the six per cent annual health transfer increase.

Hassard said he’d like to see extra funding, but would prefer that it not be tied to particular areas of health care.

“If (funding is) targeted for one specific thing, if they can’t transfer it to where it’s maybe needed elsewhere, it can be a bit more challenging,” he said.

Hassard is also hoping Silver will raise questions about recent reports that the federal government may be looking to tax benefits from private health and dental plans. He worries that an additional tax could lead Yukon employers to scale back the coverage they offer.

“Every time that the government puts another tax on you or creates hardship in another way, it just makes you shake your head and say ‘What the heck?’” he said.

Hassard sent a letter to Yukon MP Larry Bagnell this week with questions about the issue, and is waiting to hear back. But he’d like to see Silver bring it up during the meetings in Ottawa.

“I’m hoping that the premier will talk to the prime minister and the rest of the ministers when he’s there.”

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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