YUKONOMIST: Yukon amplified in Ottawa

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

If you read Imperialism by Lenin or more recent critics of global capitalism, they usually tell a story about a predatory centre imposing its will on smaller, weaker peripheral regions and exploiting them.

Canada is a member of the G7, the world’s club of top capitalist nations, and the Yukon is definitely a small economy on the periphery. Many Yukoners grew up before responsible government came here in 1979, in what was effectively a Canadian colony. The federal Commissioner ran the show as decisively as a British colonial governor in Hong Kong or the Falkland Islands, minus the fancy uniform and sword.

Yet Lenin would be astonished at the Yukon’s relationship with Canada. Far from squeezing us for resources as Moscow does to Siberian regions, we get a massive transfer payment from Ottawa.

Tappan Adney, a writer for Harper’s who travelled to the Yukon with gold-rush stampeders in 1897, calculated that Ottawa made a profit of about $20 per stampeder during the rush. And while today the feds do extract various small tax and fee revenue streams from the Yukon, it doesn’t come anywhere near offsetting the $27,766 per Yukoner that the federal money plane will drop off in Whitehorse this year.

Our masters in Canada’s power triangle between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto not only fail to extract cash from us, but they actually have to collect over a billion dollars a year in the big cities and send it to us.

It’s a similar story on the political side. The Yukon has 0.1 per cent of the nation’s population. Yet our share of Canadian senators is ten times that figure. We occupy 7 per cent of the seats at First Minister conferences. And our share of Members of Parliament is three times what our population would suggest.

I couldn’t find figures for this election, but consider these from a 2015 study of Canadian ridings. In the constituency of Brantford-Brant, which is close to the Toronto end of the power triangle, there were 132,000 people with one MP. At the time we had one MP for a quarter that many people.

It’s as if a Yukoner’s vote counted for four times as much as someone from Brantford-Brant.

I hope this disparity doesn’t distract any of them from paying their taxes to support our transfer payment.

Now just because we have a bigger share of seats doesn’t mean we necessarily have more influence.

I’ve never heard any insiders in Ottawa talking about what a Yukon premier said at a First Ministers Meeting.

But our MPs have a different track record.

The existence of the transfer payment goes back to Erik Nielsen. In addition to being the Yukon’s MP, he also ended up as Deputy Prime Minister in the 1980s. Sadly, there is no footage available on Youtube of him negotiating with himself to lock in a favourable formula for the Yukon’s transfer payment. But obviously having our MP be an influential cabinet minister was a good thing as the transfer payment agreement was negotiated in the early 1980s.

More recently, a lobbyist in Ottawa told me a story. He had been at a House of Commons committee meeting where power-triangle people were talking about important power-triangle stuff.

Then, at the end of the meeting, Yukon MP Larry Bagnell stood up and changed the subject to ask the deputy minister about what he was doing about the problems at the Ross River airport that were interfering with night-time medevac flights.

I’m willing to bet that the Ross River airport got more senior official braintime in Ottawa that week than it has had during the entire history of powered flight.

All of this raises the question of how to vote next Monday. We only have one MP, and the federal government is especially important to the Yukon’s well-being. So how can we ensure we get an MP who makes a difference rather than just disappearing into the power-triangle like so many other anonymous small-town MPs?

There are a few ways to make a difference.

One is to be an influential cabinet minister. This is easier said than done. Erik Nielsen spent over 25 years as our MP learning the ways of Ottawa before he was in a position to make the transfer payment happen.

Another is to be a relentless constituency MP. This takes persistence, hard-work and a certain ability not to care if the power-triangle people raise their eyebrows when you bring up the Ross River airport for the eighth time.

MPs can also make a difference by passionately advocating for an important issue. Michael Chong, for example, eventually talked Parliament into passing important reforms to how political parties and caucuses operate in order to empower backbench MPs. Elizabeth May did the same for a private member’s bill on Lyme disease.

In the Yukon we are privileged to often know our candidates a bit more personally than voters in bigger ridings. When you cast your vote, in addition to the party platforms, also think about who has the potential to really make a mark for us in Ottawa.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.