Yukon leaders talk COVID-19, housing and climate change at all-candidates election forum

With the Yukon territorial election just around the corner candidates discussed how their parties will address First Nations’ concerns.


An all-candidates election forum was held in Whitehorse, Yukon as a way for First Nations voters to learn more about the territory’s three running parties’ platforms.

Leaders answered predetermined questions from First Nations leaders and Yukoners on issues like COVID-19, housing and climate change, as well as how they would support First Nations governments if elected.

Liberal premier Sandy Silver says his party’s track record since being elected in 2016 speaks for itself, such as rolling out the country’s first vaccine plan and MMIWG strategy, as well as promising to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

“We worked in collaboration with the First Nations government to come to the table with respect and understanding. That is what we have done,” he said at the forum on April 1.

NDP leader Kate White said her party has bold plans for the future like covering basic dental work, setting up a 24/7 walk-in mental health clinic and increasing taxation on top income earners, as well as adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into its platform.

She also noted several times that the NDP was the only party in attendance that had not been taken to court by a Yukon First Nation while in power.

“They didn’t respect consent. They didn’t respect the will of the First Nation, and that lead to court cases. What I’m saying is I respect a First Nation’s ability to say ‘no.’ I hear that, and I can understand that,” she said at the election forum.

Currie Dixon, head of the Yukon Party, which is the territory’s conservative party, says if elected, his party will get rid of Yukon Energy’s reliance on rented diesel generators and get the economy back on track by investing in tech innovation and local businesses.

He added the Yukon Party will also improve education for First Nations students, like creating an Indigenous academy.

“We know that First Nations students outcomes have not been where they need to be and significant change is needed,” he said.

COVID-19

COVID-19 and pandemic relief came up several times during the forum.

Silver touted the Liberals investment of $100 million dollars into pandemic supports and how the party was leading the country in its vaccine rollout, as over 65 per cent of eligible Yukoners have been vaccinated.

He also promised supports for businesses, comprehensive rapid-testing and continuing to work with First Nations governments.

“We need to continue to do what we’ve done for the last year which is work hand in hand with every community in the Yukon to make sure we can work together to keep Yukoners safe, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” he said.

White said the NDP will focus on communicating with Yukoners, respecting a First Nation’s wishes if it asks for no visitors and implementing proper timelines for lifting restrictions.

“When we look toward to the future and making sure people are safe, of course it’s going to be about communicating (and) how do we make sure people are informed,” she said.

Dixon’s sentiments were similar to White’s with a focus on communication by providing information to the public such as benchmarks and timelines, as well as improving the economy like supporting small businesses.

“We need to find a way to move forward in a safe way an get Yukoners back in participating in the economy,” he said.

Housing

The candidates were asked about housing, which is a pressing issue in the Yukon.

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition announced last week that there is a low vacancy rate of 3.2 per cent, that the cost of renting increased six per cent in the last year and that there are 300 people waiting for Yukon housing.

Silver said the Liberal party inherited poor housing projects from the Yukon Party in 2016 which they cancelled and they’ve made major strides to improve housing, like releasing 500 new lots in the last three years, investing millions in renovations and recently committing to develop 1,000 more new lots.

Silver said more will be done if the Liberals are elected.

“We do recognize, though, that we still have to do a lot more. People want to live here. We have a booming economy. We have the lowest unemployment in Canada. People want to move here. Other people need affordable housing,” he said.

White stated “housing is a human right” and said the NDP is committed to zero homelessness, creating a housing authority for Yukoners with modest incomes and providing trades training for people in rural communities so they can build houses for fellow community members.

She emphasized rent caps are critical, relaying a story of a senior who contacted her after their rent increased by 40 per cent. She said she asked for a rent freeze until July, which the Liberals and Yukon Party voted against.

“Right now, you can increase (rent) once every 12 months, but there’s no limit to that amount, and what it means is people are being forced out of places that are safe and secure,” she said.

Dixon said the Yukon Party’s approach to housing will be to reintroduce programs that were cancelled by the Liberals like the first-time home buyer program, as well as introducing a first-time land buyer program.

He also noted working closely with First Nations development corporations and developing settlement lands.

“I think the Yukon government can work very closely with First Nations government to allow for the development of settlement land and promote and encourage Yukoners to understand the benefits that are apparent when we work together to develop settlement land,” he said.

Climate Change

With winters getting alarmingly warmer in Yukon, along with high transport and heating carbon emissions, candidates were asked how they would address the territory’s climate emergency and  steer the Yukon towards a greener future.

Silver spoke mainly of Our Clean Future, the Liberals $500 million dollar strategy to stop climate change and reduce carbon emissions.

If re-elected, Silver said the Liberals will also implement a wetlands strategy within their first year as well as create a park.

“We know we need to hit those targets, we know there’s no turning back. Any government that doesn’t have a climate plan is living in the past,” he said.

White lamented that climate needs to part of every government decision, such as highways building, infrastructure and energy investment.

She added the NDP will help First Nations in the fight against climate change.

“In the Yukon we are disproportionally affected by the changes in climate and First Nations communities are even more proportionally affected, again, because of the resources in those communities,” she said.

Dixon said the Yukon Party will focus more on building and installing retrofits and investing in renewable energy projects

“We think there’s an exciting future ahead with renewable energy projects in the territory and we want to partner (with First Nations) to achieve that,” he said.

Party leaders were also able to respond directly to questions from First Nations leaders like Champagne and Aishihik First Nation Chief Steve Smith.

Smith wants the new leadership to support preserving languages which are in danger of disappearing. He would like to see an early language immersion program in Yukon schools.

“I want to hear your party’s commitments to First Nations languages and the revitalization of First Nations languages in the Yukon territory,” he said.

All three leaders agreed at the election forum that an early immersion program is needed and would be something they would work towards if elected.

The Yukon territorial election will be held on April 12.

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.