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Yukonomist: The Silver era’s lessons for future Yukon premiers

Last week Premier Sandy Silver announced he was quitting as premier, just a year and a half into the legislature’s five-year term. Local politicos had been wondering what leadership moves he would make to restore the fortunes of the Liberal Party, which lost the popular vote by seven points in the 2021 election and barely clung onto a minority government.
Premier Sandy Silver speaks during Question Period at the last session of the legislature’s spring session in 2018. Silver managed the status quo over his six-year term as premier, Keith Halliday argues. (Yukon News file)

Last week Premier Sandy Silver announced he was quitting as premier, just a year and a half into the legislature’s five-year term. Local politicos had been wondering what leadership moves he would make to restore the fortunes of the Liberal Party, which lost the popular vote by seven points in the 2021 election and barely clung onto a minority government.

It turns out he will leave that job for his successor.

It is unlikely future Yukon historians will spend much time on the Silver era. He did not take big controversial decisions, like when Premier Ostashek instituted a government wage and hiring freeze. He avoided own goals, like Premier Pasloski on the Peel Watershed or the political infighting in Premier Duncan’s last year. Nor will he be remembered for a raft of major new institutions across multiple important areas like the Penikett government. Whether you liked the 1980s NDP or not, you have to admit that the negotiation of the Umbrella Final Agreement, the establishment of Yukon Energy and the passage of the Yukon Human Rights Act have had a generation of impact and are firmly baked into Yukon life.

Young Yukon leaders will now be thinking what they could do if they were premier. There are a few lessons they can draw from Silver.

The first is vision and ambition. Do you want to be premier, or accomplish things only a premier can accomplish?

Every party now has an election platform that promises transformational change. For example, Silver’s 2016 platform made big promises on, for example, sustainability, health care and economic development.

Yet here we are six years later: new diesel generators roar in front of Yukon Energy; 2,472 Yukoners are on the waiting list for a family doctor (as of November 2021); and the Yukon government depends on Ottawa for 87 per cent of its revenues, even more than in 2016.

Doing as little as possible can be a successful low-risk political strategy. Leaving a legacy of impact is more inspiring. Probably the worst outcome is to think you want to be a bold leader, but then fail to have a big impact.

Which brings us to the second lesson: execution.

If you take a Masters in Public Administration, you won’t find text books that recommend tackling important issues this way: spend months forming an expert committee, give the committee a year or two to make a report, ask your officials to spend a year or two studying the report, then have the cabinet spend some time considering the recommendations, then begin implementing some of the recommendations.

Silver’s health policy is an example. He took office in 2016. In 2018 he appointed the Putting People First committee. In 2020 the committee made its recommendations. In 2022, he announced the formation of a new health authority. Officials are still working out how exactly it will function. It will be years before we know this will make a difference in emergency wait times or how many Yukoners don’t have a doctor, assuming the next premier doesn’t re-re-organize the health department.

The creation of the First Nations School Board is less reversible. But, unlike how Penikett made some of his new institutions highly independent, the new board is dependent on the Department of Education for funding and a host of administrative matters such as busing, real estate and curriculum. It may take years before children find out if the new board has the resources and flexibility to improve the learning experience in the classroom. Or if data will be released publicly to show this one way or the other.

He did pass updates to various laws and policies, as all governments do. Examples include Access to Information, the Societies Act and First Nations procurement. These were received positively by some Yukoners, criticized by others.

The lessons here are to drive the process faster, and to focus on measurable front line impacts in important areas rather than reorganizing Assistant Deputy Ministers.

Third, there is learning. Commissioner Jim Smith was famous for walking up and down Main Street talking to people and getting a sense for what was happening. This allows successful leaders to pivot when things change.

For example, the traditional economic-development idea here has been to get money from Ottawa and spend it as quickly as possible. Silver not only spent each year’s record transfer payment, he borrowed to stimulate the economy even more (that debt will be a legacy that historians won’t talk much about, but future ministers of finance will).

However, a few years ago it became increasingly obvious that people were moving here for government jobs and contracts much faster than houses were being built. Silver kept borrowing and stimulating.

Any leader can stimulate an economy by spending billions of someone else’s money. Pivoting to do so while dodging an avoidable housing crisis with massive economic and social-justice impacts is harder. After six years in office, Silver still leads a territory of 42,000 inhabitants the size of France that has a land shortage.

The fourth lesson is around teaming. Here, Silver did well. He had no major breakdowns in his cabinet or deputy-minister team, although Liberal MLA Don Hutton resigned after a fiery speech on the lack of action on addictions. Silver had good relations with First Nations, in stark contrast to the previous government.

Of course, it is easier to get along if you are managing the status quo than making major reforms. Nonetheless, Silver’s commitment in this area will make it easier to manage challenges such as the Kaska Nation’s recent lawsuit about the Kudz Ze Kayah mine decision.

He worked well with the Liberal government in Ottawa, and successfully rolled out federal carbon pricing and subsidized child care programs with local tweaks.

He also teamed well with the Chief Medical Officer of Health during the pandemic. He appears to have listened to scientific advice and, like the premiers of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, put in place a bubble that served the territory well.

It is somewhat surprising Yukoners didn’t give Silver more credit for his federal and First Nations relationships in the last election. His party only got 32 percent of the popular vote. The way the Liberal vote was distributed across ridings suggests, for example, that many First Nations voters ticked the box beside other party names.

We shall see who the next premier of the Yukon will be, and whether they offer more of the same. We can’t get back the six last years of lost opportunities to tackle housing, health care and climate change. In the next election, I suspect Yukoners will be looking for a leader who tackles these challenges with more vigour and impact.

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 is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.