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COMMENTARY: An update from Yukon’s Senator Pat Duncan

Pat Duncan
Yukon’s senator Pat Duncan has provided an update on her pandemic year in the senate office to Yukoners. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

Pat Duncan

Special to the News

Spring in the Yukon! With more and more of us vaccinated daily and starting to see one another — albeit masked — Yukoners often ask me, so have you had to go back to Ottawa? How have you been able to be our Yukon Senator during the pandemic? Clearly, it is time for a report to Yukoners.

May I start by saying, like you, how incredibly grateful I am to be a Yukoner. I often hear from my Senate colleagues how envious they are of how well the Yukon has managed over the last 14 months of the pandemic. The Yukon has come together as a community to support and to hold one another close in our hearts. My heartfelt gratitude to everyone for doing everything you can, especially getting vaccinated, to ensure we all stay safe and well. Thank you.

As the Senate began our session in February 2020, I was asked by the leadership of the Independent Senators Group to take on the duties of Chamber Coordinator on behalf of our group. This is a very similar role to the House Leaders in our Legislative Assembly. Together with the representatives of the other groups, we are responsible for the daily logistics in the Senate Chamber — coordinating speakers, liaising with the other groups and parties.

As COVID-19 began to challenge us all, unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the Senate was not prepared to work in the virtual world. I had come home to volunteer at the Arctic Winter Games just as the Games were cancelled and fortunately, I was able to stay home as the Senate’s regular sittings were significantly reduced. Early in the pandemic induced reduced sittings, I introduced a motion so that my colleagues could meet safely with a recommendation for wearing masks. Although the motion was not debated or passed, it did put my colleagues on notice that the Independent Senators Group was intent on following guidelines to protect the staff of the Senate, and our colleagues. It was one of the few times I have enjoyed an editorial with the headline ‘Sen. Duncan is right!’ (The Hill Times, Dec. 14, 2020)

As a member of the Senate’s National Finance Committee we are mandated to review government spending and budgets, and we were the first and often have been the only Senate committee able to hold our meetings by Zoom. One of the immediate issues of the pandemic I brought to the Committee’s attention was the situation of the northern air carriers, especially Yukon’s Air North. Arranging for Joe Sparling to testify before my colleagues was instrumental in the Committee recommending special consideration of the North and co-operation with the northern governments to ensure sufficient financial aid and access to gateway routes. Joe was clear and eloquent and my colleagues on National Finance have continued to support my raising northern air carrier issues including most recently Air North’s representations on interline agreements.

Eventually a hybrid Senate sitting process with both in-person and virtual attendance was agreed upon. The Government asked me in November to sponsor Government Bill C-9 in the Senate. This bill proposed changes to the Income Tax Act, amended the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. The changes continued the wage subsidy that supported businesses and their employees, and the rent subsidy changes allowed businesses to apply directly for subsidies toward their rent and mortgage instead of the landlord having to do so on tenants behalf.

As the Senate sponsor of this bill, it was my role to work with colleagues to ensure the bill passed in a timely manner so that the funds could, in turn also be released promptly. As the sponsor, I decided to travel to Ottawa to more effectively persuade my colleagues in person. It was my first and only trip “outside” since mid-March. As it turned out, the Senate passed the bill quickly and adjourned shortly after. I followed best practices and enjoyed a two-week isolation when I returned home. I say enjoyed as thanks to the generosity of friends, I was able to isolate in a cabin with all the amenities including internet. I was able to live what is now the typical day of a Senator: 12-14 hours in front of a computer screen ranging from Senate sittings to committee hearings and meetings.

Thankfully, because I live in the Yukon, I am also able to enjoy that solitary daily walk outdoors! One of the issues of this winter that permeated throughout all these computer meetings was the concern that NAV Canada was considering reducing the air traffic control services at Erik Nielsen International Airport in Whitehorse. Reductions were also planned atFort McMurray in Alberta; Gander Airport in Newfoundland and Labrador; Windsor in Ontario and several others.

My colleagues and I asked questions in Senate Question Period, I raised this matter in the Finance Committee with Transport Canada officials.

Several Senators, including myself, met with Transport Minister Alghabra to make the case that this was not the time for a study and possible reduction of services. In April this year, NAV Canada announced that these airports would not see reductions in services, and that any future studies on remote and Northern airports is suspended until further notice.

Another challenging issue for Senators this winter was Bill C-7, changes to the laws on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). Several of the current Senators were appointed after this had last been discussed. These new Senators brought powerful additional expertise and experience to the debate on this bill and as a result, the Senate successfully introduced amendments that were then accepted by the House of Commons. My own participation in the debate on MAID and other matters, and questions I ask at National Finance are guided by my conversations with and advice from Yukoners.

Another example of this is gathering representations from young Yukoners on a non-government bill a colleague has introduced. Bill S-209 would lower the voting age for federal elections in Canada to 16. I have engaged in a few discussions with Yukon students on this subject, and I hope to be speaking with many more as I believe debate on this subject will continue for some time.

June is traditionally a very busy time in the Red Chamber. Looking ahead, the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples is already working on a pre-study of Bill C-15, An Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Chief Steve Smith from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations testified before the Committee on May 10. Although I am not a member of this Committee, I can attend their meetings, and am following their study of Bill C-15.

In my role as a member of the National Finance Committee we are currently studying the estimated government spending for 2021/22 and the Budget Implementation Act including some things from Budget 2021. On Tuesday this week, Committee members and I questioned the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Independent Business, National Aboriginal Capital Corporation Association and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. Thursday the witnesses before the Committee were representatives of the Canadians for Tax Fairness, Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association and Electric Mobility Canada.

You can always view the Senate proceedings in the Chamber, or the Committee hearings at The meetings do not have to be viewed live. The recordings of meetings can be viewed at your convenience. If you would like to watch some of the discussions I mentioned, please e-mail me and I will be happy to send you the meeting dates to reference.

Of course it is always a special pleasure to have conversations in person and as the pandemic restrictions are easing I look forward to many more in-person visits. Please know that you are welcome to reach me by email at by phone at 613-947-7557 or text 613-858-0984 Thank you for keeping in touch. I do appreciate hearing from you.

Wishing all Yukoners the very best, please do stay safe and well.