(Yukon News files)

(Yukon News files)

Yukon’s top stories of 2022

These are the top stories of 2022 as decided by the Yukon News editorial staff.

Territory experiences education woes

2022 saw the Yukon’s education system embattled by lawsuits, staffing issues and intense scrutiny. Two Yukon schools were particularly under the microscope: Hidden Valley Elementary and Jack Hulland Elementary.

The fallout of 2021’s revelations of sexual abuse of students at Hidden Valley continued into 2022. In the previous year, it came to light that a former education assistant had pled guilty to molesting a student, and the Education department had failed to identify further victims. More victims were discovered and further charges were filed.

This year saw outside reviews of the government and RCMP handling of the accusations and promises by both groups to amend their practices.

There were also investigations into holds and confinement spaces at Jack Hulland Elementary going back decades. A January investigation by the RCMP resulted in no charges, but opened discussion on practices used there.

This spring, use of force at the school was reported on by the Yukon’s Child and Youth Advocate. The situation at the school was also a regular subject of discussion during legislature sittings. Allegations of political interference with the investigation were stringently denied by the governing Yukon Liberals.

The situation culminated in a class action lawsuit by the families of students who claim they were subject to holds and confinement that was filed this November. It deals with the period between 2002 and 2022. The situation at Jack Hulland was also used as an example by an NDP MP seeking to amend Canada’s law that allows parents and teachers to physically punish children.

Also troubling on the education front were staff shortages to start the 2022/23 school year that saw opposition MLAs reporting classrooms without teachers as school started. The government said teachers were being sought to fill 20 positions as of late August but a teachers’ union representative put the number of vacancies closer to 30 jobs. The Yukon Workers’ Safety and Compensation Board also gave the education department a failing grade when it came to health and safety committee programs in schools just prior to the start of the school year.

(Jim Elliot)

First Nations School Board launches

Years of work came to fruition in 2022 with the establishment of a First Nations School Board for the Yukon. Following referendums that allowed eight schools to opt in, the board was officially created on Feb. 14. Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow, Grey Mountain Primary School in Whitehorse, Johnson Elementary and Watson Lake Secondary in Watson Lake, Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek, Ross River School in Ross River, St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction and Takhini Elementary in Whitehorse were the first schools.

J.V. Clark School in Mayo was the only school to hold a referendum but not meet the simple majority required to join the school board.

Following its creation, the board was overseen by an interim governance committee of individuals with useful knowledge and experience. The board was established and operating the schools that opted to join it by the start of the 2022/23 school year.

Elected trustees took over for the interim committee following voting in December. Shadelle Chambers, Erin Pauls, Dana Tizya-Tramm, Jocelyn Joe-Strack and Gillian Staveley were elected to the trustee roles.

(Jim Elliot)

Landslides close roads, cost millions

The territory experienced the impact of landslides first-hand in 2022 as roads were closed and internet service knocked out at various points.

On April 30 in Whitehorse, debris slid down the city’s escarpment, across Robert Service Way and into the Yukon River, also taking out a light standard and rail tracks in its path. A large portion of the road, as well as nearby trails, remained closed for approximately six weeks as tension cracks were observed and slides occurred elsewhere along the escarpment. A sheet piling wall was put in place on Robert Service Way to prevent further slides from reaching the road.

Among the tension cracks, a large one occurred at a manhole along the sewer line east of the Pepsi Softball Center in Takhini. The city put a temporary sewage bypass in place after the tension crack was seen, with a more permanent fix planned in the future.

The city spent $2.6 million dealing with the landslides and escarpment instability around the city along with a further $350,000 on the sewer line.

As the city grappled with the local landslide situation, “significant land erosion” outside the territory took its toll when internet services were lost for 12 hours on July 6.

Northwestel said the mass disruption was caused by erosion damaging a fibre optic cable along the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia. The outage affected all customers in the Yukon and some in N.W.T.

Meanwhile, the North Klondike Highway near Dawson City saw at least 10 landslides through September.

The slides were triggered by heavy rainfall with the road closed south of the Dempster Highway cutoff between road markers 666 to 674 and to Rock Creek between road markers 693 and 696 on Sept. 22.

Helicopters were used to move 40 people who were trapped in the area when the road closed. The road reopened on Sept. 26.

(Stephanie Waddell)

Historic fire season for the territory

2022 marked a historic fire season in the territory, while some serious flooding also occured in parts of the Yukon, prompting the Yukon government to add another $20.2 million to fire and flood relief in its fall supplementary budget.

As Premier Sandy Silver said in October: “This summer, it started out very troubled. We saw unprecedented fire activity, with major fire activity in every single region.”

A total of 260 fires had burned close to 156,000 hectares by July 18. More than 150 wildfire personnel from B.C. arrived in the territory to assist.

As the fire season quieted down in mid-August, the Yukon government deployed some of its personnel Outside to assist with fires in B.C., Idaho and the state of Washington.

Also in August, the Yukon government launched the 2022 flood relief program to help residents pay for damage to their property and belongings that were caused by flooding earlier in the season.

Property owners and/or those living in Carmacks, Cowley Creek, Dawson, Fox Lake, Ibex Valley, Lake Laberge, Liard, McConnell Lake, Old Crow, Pelly Crossing, Ross River, Tagish and Teslin were eligible to apply for funding through one of three programs to repair property, replace possessions or for mitigation measures to deal with flooding.

(Stephanie Waddell)

Chinook salmon now functionally extinct

Chinook salmon counts in 2022 saw a precipitous drop following alarming lows in the two previous years. From numbers in the last century in the range of 160,000 chinook, the last three years have been catastrophic, with only 30,000 coming across the border in 2021 and 2022. This year witnessed death knell numbers at 11,000, with only a bare 164 chinook salmon making it through the Whitehorse fish ladder.

At the post-season Yukon River Panel meeting in December, Don Toews called on the committee to recognize that the species is now “functionally extinct.” The reasons for the drop can be debated, but he says that that the reality is that the chinook are no longer able to fulfill their ecological function. That function is to bring nutrients from the Pacific Ocean back up the river and into the Yukon territory.

Now, Yukoners are seeing the disappearance of a way of life — family fish camps with children helping their parents and elders with the catching, skinning, drying and smoking of a winter’s food. These camps lined the Yukon River from Eagle to Teslin when the tributaries were filled so thick with salmon it was said you could cross the creeks on their backs.

Yukon First Nations, connected spiritually to the land and to the water, have been invoking ceremony to call back the salmon into the creeks and the lakes they once spawned in.

Toews insists that the chinook salmon, the strongest of the salmon species, need three or four life cycles to adapt genetically to climate-induced stressors in their environment, like warming waters and deteriorated spawning grounds. That means 20 years without harvesting.

Toews said the fish that made it through the fish ladder this year are the climate change survivors. They need to spawn, return to the ocean, grow strong again, swim, spawn and complete their life cycles to allow their biological adaption process to evolve and their species to survive.

(Lawrie Crawford)

Substance use emergency unabated

There were nine opioid-related deaths in the first 23 days of 2022. Mayo and Carcross cried out for a state of emergency. Candles were lit and vigils held across the territory on Jan. 15, calling for government action.

On Jan. 20, Tracy-Anne McPhee, minister of Health and Social Services, declared a substance use health emergency. Summits were organized and a flurry of meetings took place, including the creation of a ministerial advisory group.

Harm reduction efforts were bolstered through the supervised consumption site, and services added to the Whitehorse shelter.

The RCMP published a report detailing a high level of organized criminal networks fueling the illicit drug trade in the territory and its profitability, while coroner reports detailed its human tragedy.

By mid-December, 25 people had died from substance overdoses or poisonings, matching the toll from 2021. Four out of five fatalities involved opioids and most of those involved fentanyl. Alcohol was added to the list of contributing substances in drug poisoning fatalities, along with cocaine and benzodiazepines. Women in the territory were seen to constitute a larger proportion of fatalities than in other jurisdictions.

Demand remains high for beds at Yukon’s withdrawal services, with two extra beds added post-COVID-19 for a total of 14 beds. The Council of Yukon First Nations continued their involvement and sent over 100 people to outside treatment centres, sometimes providing support for detoxification and longer-term recovery in southern centres.

The official opposition remained critical of government efforts ,saying that the government is focussing too much on harm reduction and not enough on treatment, aftercare and enforcement, blasting them for the dismal conclusions in the latest health status report and for not increasing resources for the RCMP to deal with drug trafficking.

(Lawrie Crawford)

COVID-19 restrictions drop, death toll rises

In the past year that saw COVID-19-related restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 ramp down, more people died due to COVID-19 in the Yukon than the previous two pandemic years combined.

Seventeen deaths were recorded in the territory in 2022, compared to 14 in 2021 and one in 2020.

In 2022, the Yukon government lifted its pandemic state of emergency, shut down its COVID-19 data dashboard, ended COVID-19 vaccine requirements for Yukon government employees and dropped pandemic-related rules such as capacity limits, proof of vaccination and mask mandates in most settings.

“Dancing and mingling between tables will be allowed,” Premier Sandy Silver said in a Feb. 24 announcement of the restrictions being lifted.

The demise of restrictions saw many Yukoners come together for larger in-person gatherings.

Data released to health-care providers shows Yukoners who are not up to date with vaccinations overall made up 79 per cent of hospitalizations and 92 per cent of deaths.

Untimely medical care and delayed diagnoses have been the unintended outcomes of COVID-19 measures in primary care settings, according to a memo between Yukon health officials.

Dr. Sudit Ranade took over as the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health starting in July.

In November 2022, the Yukon government put out a new roadmap — titled Charting the Course: Living with and managing COVID-19 — for dealing with what it calls the “acute” stage of the pandemic. The territorial government also announced it was shuttering the COVID-19 Testing and Assessment Centre and self-isolation facilities.

On Nov. 14, Ranade told the Yukon Legislative Assembly the territory can expect a spike in respiratory illnesses similar to other parts of Canada while the COVID-19 pandemic is still at play. As COVID-19, RSV, influenza and other viruses circulate throughout the territory, Ranade continues to share the Yukon government’s message to Yukoners: get vaccinated to provide an extra layer of protection.

(Dana Hatherly)

Health-care system not immune

The territorial government consistently blamed a local, national and global shortage of health-care workers for health-care woes in the territory in 2022.

Premier Sandy Silver joined premiers across the country in a unanimous call on the federal government to increase health-care spending.

The doctor’s waitlist swelled to more than 3,300 Yukoners.

Whitehorse did not get a walk-in clinic, as promised by Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee.

A verbal threat directed at a specific group of hospital employees triggered the Whitehorse General Hospital to call a Code Lockdown for the first time in its institutional history.

Staff illness and recruitment challenges were cited by the Yukon Hospital Corporation as the reasons behind postponing a dozen scheduled surgeries a day at the Whitehorse hospital during the summer.

A new bilingual health centre opened this fall in Whitehorse, without any physicians hired for it. A midwifery clinic opened earlier in the year, with two practising midwives at the time.

Community health centres racked up more than 100 days combined of reduced services over the year.

In the fall, McPhee said a more than 40 per cent vacancy rate for community nurses across the territory is “very, very serious.”

(Dana Hatherly)