Northern Public Affairs

Cameron: What to do…Political Choice or Cultural Alignment?

Our Yukon correspondent, Kirk Cameron, on MLA Darius Elias’ departure from the Liberal Party and the structure of party politics in the Yukon.
 
[dropcap_1]A[/dropcap_1] theme that weaves through much of my writing on northern political and governance topics is the question of “difference” between our Yukon history and that of the other provinces and territories in Canada.  It’s easy to see differences between mainstream-Canada political systems and the NWT or Nunavut, as these territories have some fundamentally different approaches to the business of governing; the consensus style decision-making process comes to mind.
 
However, where Yukon is concerned, the differences are perhaps more subtle, and certainly more difficult to put a finger on.
 
A recent alignment of stars has given me pause for thought on this question of “difference”.  Last week an announcement by a Yukon political leader has served to highlight one of these.  This coincides with a writing project relating to the Yukon’s Legislature which has given me time to reflect on the unique characteristics of our governance institutions.

Friday, many of us in Yukon were surprised to hear that the Acting Leader of the Yukon Liberal Party, and MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, Darius Elias, announced his departure from the Party resulting in his move to Independent status in the Legislature.  In an interview with the Whitehorse Star, Mr. Elias stated:  “It became very evident over the last couple of months that it was in the best interest of everyone in mind, myself, my family, my constituents, Yukoners, and the party, for that matter, that it’s time for me to stand down from the Liberal party and look at things through a non-partisan lens”.   He went on to say that, working as an independent, he will be able to concentrate more effectively on the “goals and aspirations” of the Vuntut Gwitchin riding centered in the small isolated community of Old Crow: “Especially, looking at those issues through a non-partisan lens, I can do things in a different way, recognizing the collective value of everyone’s hard work in Old Crow” (Whitehorse Star, August 17, 2012).

This event serves to highlight a difference that has become evident in Yukon politics over time.  Although party politics have been alive and well in the territory since 1979 when the former Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Jake Epp issued a Letter of Instruction to the Yukon Commissioner effectively turning over in entirety residual executive functions from federal bureaucrats to the elected Members of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, there has been what I’ll loosely describe as a lesser degree of partisanship providing the “glue” to the business of governing in the territory.  And, I believe this is in part due to a cultural integration, if you will, between the Aboriginal tribal conviction found within Yukon First Nation political culture and the European political structuring around positional ideological parties.  What has resulted is a greater willingness for individual party members to make choices based on the values of community over the positioning or policy of party.

Although this is a considerable generalization in that there are many who have strong and passionate connection with the “big three” – Yukon Liberal Party, Yukon Party (conservatives) and New Democratic Party (the “Greens” and an Aboriginal party have also surfaced) – there is now plenty of experience with individual MLAs “changing horses in mid-stream”.  Darius is the latest in a considerable list.  Others that come to mind are:
 

  • The late John Edzerza who at various times sat as an MLA with the NDP, the Yukon Party, and for a brief time as an Independent (he unfortunately left us in November 2011 succumbing to leukemia);
  • The former Watson Lake MLA, Dennis Fentie, served his first term in the NDP Caucus before moving to the Yukon Party, taking that Party’s leadership and winning two elections as Premier in 2002 and 2006;
  • In 2002 three Liberal Party faithful left Caucus to sit as Independents, ultimately resulting in the defeat of what started in 2000 as a Liberal majority Government.
  •  
    There have been many other examples, but these serve to highlight the point that it is not at all uncommon for individuals to shift allegiances between parties.  Some have been politically charged, but in others, as with Mr. Elias and Mr. Edzerza, these are as much driven by what they have seen as their best opportunities to serve their constituents.

    To test the point that this is a unique political cultural characteristic, if this were merely partisan maneuvering, one would expect reaction from Yukoners showing up to the polls to “bounce” the political opportunistic.   But, in so many of these examples, MLAs changing parties have been reelected.  Perhaps the most notable is Mr. Fentie, who was not only reelected, but embraced by his new Party ultimately taking its leadership.

    In short, I conclude that the political culture in Yukon is more focused on person than on policy or politics.  Constituents still prefer to elect to office those who are tireless in serving the riding, and not so much the party.

    It will be interesting to see whether at some point Mr. Elias will find that he can be of greater service to Old Crow if he joins the governing Yukon Party.  The Whitehorse Star’s reporter recounts that Darius “got into politics to ‘make a difference’ for his constituents, and Yukoners more generally”, and goes on to report that “Elias did not rule out the possibility of joining another political party in the future.”

    In keeping with his commitment to serve his community, Elias will renew his focus in the Legislature on:
     

  • Winter road access to Old Crow;
  • Education support for his community including curriculum development and frequent air access for Old Crow students who travel to Whitehorse for senior high school years;
  • Health; and
  • Social issues important to his community.
  •  
    In keeping with the Yukon’s “non-partisan characteristic” I argue here, the acting Liberal Leader’s (Mr. Sandy Silver) reaction is telling: “I want to thank him [Darius Elias] for his many contributions to the party, … Our door is open for him to return at a later date.”

    Now, can you imagine Mr. Harper saying this on the occasion of a defection by one of his Caucus?

    Kirk Cameron is a Yukon City Councillor and principal consultant at northSense Management. He can be reached at kirk@kirkcameron.ca.

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    • Aaron Spitzer

      You pose an interesting question, Kirk — does the Yukon party system ill-serve rural and/or aboriginal ridings? And do MLAs from those ridings disproportionately negotiate freedom from (or freedom within) that system by switching or abandoning parties? It would be fun to track all instances of Yukon party-switching since 1979 to determine just how much more prevalent such activity is in rural/aboriginal ridings, and how much more prevalent it is in the Yukon as a whole compared to provincial legislatures.   

      • Kirk Cameron

        These are very interesting questions.  Indeed the governance pundits (federal and in Yukon) considered these matters at length in the mid-1970s during which time a paper was published (1975) called “Position Paper: Meaningful Government For All Yukoners”.   In that Yukon Government paper a few unique options where considered like an overlay of ridings in Yukon where only FN Citizens could run and vote; in essence, guaranteed representation in the Legislature (at the time called the Yukon Council).  In addition the paper mused on the possibility of a guaranteed aboriginal seat a the Executive Committee (today’s Cabinet) table.  For whatever reason, these substantive changes did not find there way into subsequent Letters of Instruction to the Yukon Commissioner in 1976 (Buchanan), January 1979 (Faulkner) or October 1979 (the famous Epp Letter). 

        There could well be a really interesting Ph.D. thesis in all of this by some budding new academic…