In the Yukon politics is an intensely personal game played with small teams on a vast field covered with spruce trees and mountain peaks. Because of that, elections in the Yukon can be decided by a handful of voters in the territory’s 16 ridings. In each constituency the electorate averages fewer than 800 citizens—the equivalent, in some cases, of the local moose population. Those margins came into play last May when the New Democratic Party unexpectedly defeated the Yukon’s seven year-old Conservative government by capturing eight of the legislative assembly’s 16 seats, two of them by fewer than 10 votes. That victory chastened the Tories and alarmed many local businessmen who were struggling to recover from the lingering aftereffects of the recession that nearly closed down the Yukon’s mining industry.
But by the time the legislative assembly met last week to begin a new session under government leader Antony Penikett’s minority NDP administration, many of the business sector’s concerns had been allayed by the new government’s low-key and cautiously pragmatic approach. So far, the NDP’s most radical initiatives have been to replace an archaic law that allowed Yukoners to drink while driving and to announce that a local-hire clause will be inserted into public works contracts.
In last week’s throne speech, read by Commissioner Douglas Bell, the new
government pledged to tackle the Yukon’s 20-per-cent unemployment rate by continuing its efforts to reopen the Cyprus Anvil lead-zinc mine in Faro. Until declining metal prices and rising costs forced it to close in 1982, the mine generated 12 per cent of the territory’s tax revenue. A resumption of operations at the mine could provide more than 1,000 direct and spin-off jobs. As well, the government will encourage communities to plan job creation programs in
such areas as tourism, farming, logging and trapping. The throne speech noted: “We have relied too heavily on mining and government for our economic wellbeing. We must diversify.”
Along with the Cyprus Anvil mine, the other major issue that will likely dominate debate in this fall’s sitting is the costly and still-unresolved issue of Indian land claims in the territory. Liberal Leader Roger Coles, whose party holds two seats in the legislature, agreed after the election in May to support Penikett’s government if it gave priority to the two issues—a condition to which the NDP willingly agreed.
The NDP’s moderate approach has served to appease the initial fears of the Yukon’s business community but it has aroused the suspicion of Conservative Leader Willard Phelps. Phelps’s party went into the May election fully confident of a big victory. But the party fell from nine seats to six on the opposition benches. (The death last month of Conservative member Andy Philipsen in a trucking accident reduced the Tories’ strength to five seats.) Phelps says that the NDP government is attempting to deceive the electorate by copying Conservative policies. “They are pretending to be Conservatives,” said Phelps, “but heaven knows what their hidden agenda is.” But Penikett told Maclean's, “If Willard is upset because I’m not behaving like some Marxist-Leninist clown, then he hasn’t been listening carefully enough to what we said we’d do.”
Penikett, a former president of the federal NDP, arrived as government leader—the equivalent of premier—from an unlikely background. Born in England and raised in Alberta, 39-year-old Penikett has been an intermittent resident of the territory for 15 years, since his first job as a union steward at an asbestos mine. He was working as a night clerk at a Whitehorse hotel when he was elected leader of the Yukon’s NDP in 1981. Penikett’s wife, Lu, mother of his three children, is a Tutchone Indian.
During last spring’s election campaign the NDP pledged to do what many Yukoners said the Conservatives had stopped doing: listening to people. Even Phelps has conceded that the “arrogance” of former Tory government leader Chris Pearson’s administration played a part in the Tory defeat. The NDP’s narrow victory was the result, Phelps added,
“not of a pro-NDP vote” but of a protest against Pearson’s style.
Still, the NDP, whose share of the popular vote grew to 45 from five per cent in the past three elections, effectively exploited discontent on two fronts: in the Yukon’s rural communities and among the territory’s 5,000 status and nonstatus Indians. In fact, half of the NDP MLAs elected in May were Indians—including Sam Johnston, the first Indian speaker of a legislative assembly in Canada.
Even the long shadow of Erik Nielsen, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s deputy and the territory’s most prominent politician, could not save the Yukon Tories. A week before the May 13 election Nielsen announced an $8.7-million economic development grant and a new financing agreement, which increased the Yukon’s capital budget to $42 million this year from $27 million.
The abrupt change in the territory’s political contours also reflected a critical transformation in the Yukon economy. Since 1980 declining metal prices have reduced the value of the territory’s mineral production to only $57 million last year from a high of $360 million, elevating tourism to the territory’s number 1 industry. Even the Yukon’s oldest continuously producing silver mine, United Keno Hill, near Elsa, 350 km north of Whitehorse, has had to struggle hard to stay in business. With
losses running at $300,000 a month, Keno negotiated a new contract with its 180 employees that reduced wages by as much as 25 per cent.
Some of the Yukon’s self-reliant rural communities are so accustomed to hardship that they have endured the latest economic decline as they would a change in the weather. One of those communities is the town of Mayo, 410 km north of Whitehorse. The 265 white townspeople earn a good living as government workers, businessmen and placer miners,
while chronic seasonal underemployment and its social companion, alcoholism, are a pervasive reality for Mayo’s 195 Indians. Said Emery Shilleto, who has served in Mayo for 20 years as the territorial agent, issuing burial and marriage licenses: “There are highs and lows all the time. The people who are here are here.”
In the expectation that international metal prices will eventually return to their former levels, efforts are under way to revive the Cyprus Anvil mine in Faro, 250 km north of Whitehorse. In July, Toronto mining entrepreneur Clifford Frame took an option to buy the property from Dome Petroleum Ltd. At one point, negotiations between Frame, Ottawa and the Yukon governments broke down over the amount of assistance government would give the mine in the form of tax breaks and transportation and energy subsidies. But an agreement is expected within the next two weeks. “It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap,” acknowledged Penikett. Indeed, he faced opposition from other
lead-zinc producers in the West who object to plans for subsidizing Cyprus Anvil.
The crisis in the Yukon’s mining industry has led to renewed efforts to diversify the economy. Penikett, for one, says that more locally grown timber should be used in construction projects instead of expensive imported materials like steel and glass. To cut down on the Yukon’s annual $40-million bill for imported food, he has pledged to encourage the infant agricultural industry in the territory’s rich river valleys, where in spite of the short growing season, more than 15 per cent of the territory’s food could be grown. “If we don’t make ourselves self-sufficient,” noted Penikett, “we are damned to be yoyos at the end of a string.”
In an effort to quicken the pace of Indian land claims negotiations, Penikett’s government has appointed former territorial judge Barry Stuart, who helped to write a new constitution for the Pacific island of PapuaNew Guinea, as chief government negotiator. In return for surrendering aboriginal claims to a large part of the territo! ry, the Indians want to ^ keep between eight and 14 per cent of the Yukon’s s land base, as well as receive a $500-billion cash settlement and a share of potentially lucrative subsurface mineral revenues.
A tentative agreement which met most of the Indians’ demands collapsed last year as a result of disagreement among the bands. Declared Tory MLA Douglas Phillips: “It is frustrating to live here all your life and not be able to buy a cabin because the federal government has frozen the land until an agreement is signed.”
In the meantime, Penikett says that he will probably not call an election for two years—but when he does the government leader hopes to return his party to office with a solid legislative majority. To that end, he will try to meet the demands of the loosely knit coalition of trappers, miners, Indians and government workers who voted for the NDP the last time. The party will have to prove to Yukoners that in the critical areas of Indian land claims and economic diversification it can succeed where the Tories failed.
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