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Yukonomist: The Rorschach Games

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Yukon athletes at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse. (Yukon News file)

The Yukon government’s dramatic move last week to withdraw the Canada Games bid filled the papers with sharp — and often completely opposite — reactions.

Reactions so opposite that the Games drama is less like a funding announcement and more like a Rorschach test. This is the test where a psychiatrist shows the same inkblot image to different people and each person sees something different; something that reveals more about the person than the inkblot.

First the facts that formed the inkblot: the Yukon’s 2027 Canada Games proposal was costed at around $185 million, including a major new arena and new dorms for the university. The feds offered $16.75 million and the Yukon government withdrew its bid.

Some saw this as a sign the Yukon government had finally jumped the shark in its quest to vacuum up ever more federal money. We already get $28,497 per Yukoner in our transfer payment, providing almost 90 per cent of the Yukon government budget, and we wanted over $100 million more for a sporting event, they asked? This school of thought pointed to a statement from the head of the Canada Games Council who said the proposal was “a shinier version than what would have been required to host the Games.”

Others saw the same facts and concluded the feds were turning their backs on the North. There was wild conjecture that future infrastructure projects and even our transfer payment might be at risk by this sudden change in Ottawa’s attitude. There is indeed some reason to worry about the fiscal unsustainability of the Yukon government. We are just one national fiscal crisis, of the kind seen recently in the UK or during the 2008 crisis in Ireland or Spain, from a painful yank of our federal fiscal leash. But others said that one federal refusal to put on a special Canada Games charter of the regularly scheduled money plane from Ottawa doesn’t necessarily put the transfer payment in doubt.

Meanwhile, the city and tourism entrepreneurs saw a lost opportunity for an event that would shower the Yukon in publicity.

Students, feeling the pinch of the low vacancy rates and the housing shortage, bemoaned the loss of new dorms at the university.

Some saw a lost opportunity to highlight the Yukon’s path to Indigenous reconciliation, while others saw a chance for Yukon athletes to learn how reconciliation looks in whichever part of Canada ends up hosting the 2027 Games.

There was some chatter among politicos that the inkblot was a sign of the incompetence of the Yukon’s government and MP, who couldn’t close the deal in Ottawa. We all know, they said, that if the feds really wanted to fund the Games they would have found some program to fund it. The bid has been underway since 2021 and the feds made other major new announcements in the recent Fall Economic Statement. Some even claimed quietly it was a sign the Prime Minister’s Office has written off our MP, who only got 33 per cent of the vote last time; the Games will go, according to these conspiracy theorists, to a riding the Liberals can win in the rumoured 2023 election.

In contrast, others saw it as proof of the chess-master political skills of the territorial government and our MP. This dramatic yanking of the bid was just a gambit to strengthen the Yukon’s negotiating position for the real endgame negotiations, which are just beginning. In this scenario there is a behind-the-scenes deal where we get the Games, albeit with a slightly smaller arena and smaller dorm rooms at YukU.

There was one group that did not jump onto Twitter to participate in last week’s territorial Rorschach test: the quietly relieved. This included athletes privately happy they would get to travel to an exciting distant venue for the 2027 Games instead of staying home. Others silently celebrated the end of an expensive multi-year extravaganza that would distract officials from other priorities, drain money and volunteers from worthy charities and compete with housing builders for scarce tradespeople.

We don’t know how many Yukoners fall into the quietly relieved category. The Yukon government runs public consultation exercises on everything from wood smoke to single-use plastic bags to charity raffle policy, but chose not to consult Yukoners on the Games bid. Did they consider it too risky in case Yukoners voted down the Games, as the citizens of Calgary did with their Olympic bid in 2018?

So what happens now? There is plenty the Yukon government can do to support Yukon athletes preparing for the 2027 Games, wherever they may occur. The Yukon government may also be working to salvage a deal with lower costs and less federal money. It may also be considering shifting more of its own money from other programs to boost its funding of the 2027 Games. If so, they should get the right federal and Yukon decision makers in a room, set a deadline, and quickly finalize the salvage deal. Then they should give all Yukoners, including those who think the focus should be on fixing our housing and health worker shortages, a chance to vote on it.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.