At the time this article was written
Chris Pearson was Government Leader of Yukon.
The development of responsible government in
Yukon has come about in a manner strikingly similar to social, economic and
political patterns in Canada's Prairie region at the turn of the century.
Frederick Haultain was head of the
government of the Northwest Territories which was based on Regina in 1897. The
territories at that time included Ungava, Franklin, Mackenzie, and Yukon and
the districts of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Athabaska and Alberta.
The Honourable Mr. Haultain governed with an
executive council, very similar to the council sworn into office in Whitehorse
on October 22, 1979, and with a legislative council similar to the legislative
assembly based in Whitehorse.
His executive council won responsible
government for the territories in 1897 and he maintained that the Lieutenant
Governor was obliged to accept the advice of his territorial ministers on
purely territorial matters.
A letter from then Indian and Northern
Affairs Minister Hugh Faulkner was issued to Yukon Commissioner lone
Christensen in January 1979 instructing her to accept the advice of Yukon
ministers on matters of strictly territorial jurisdiction.
These historical parallels are separated by
82 years and raise the question of why a wholly elected responsible government
did not develop in the Yukon Territory until 1979.
The answer is an interesting mixture of
political history, economic development, and a growing regional maturity on the
part of Canada's north.
Dawson City at the turn of the century, where
it all began, was western Canada's most modern and cosmopolitan centre boasting
a population of about 30,000. Most of those residents were of American origin
and it was only the presence of the Northwest Mounted Police and one or two
Canadian government officials which maintained a Canadian identity in an area
commonly considered to be part of Alaska.
An attempt by the Northwest Territories'
Council at Regina to corral the liquor licences and liquor revenues in 1897
spurred the federal government into declaring Yukon a separate territory in
The Yukon Act, in that year, established a
chief executive officer known as Commissioner and an advisory group of six
appointed council members. The term Commissioner rather than Lieutenant
Governor, was adopted because Yukon was still a provisional district of the
Northwest Territories and the term Commissioner was in common usage in Yukon to
describe the Gold Commissioner, who was appointed the first chief executive
Yukon residents soon began to demand a share
in responsible government and the Yukon Act was amended in 1899 to allow for
the election of two council members with the same powers and duties as the six
The council was enlarged to 11 in 1902, but
only five members were elected. The Act was again amended in 1908 to give
Yukoners a council of 10, all of them elected.
The decline of activity in the Klondike gold
fields, the First World War and the economic depression which followed meant drastic
cuts in federal budgets and Yukoners woke up one morning in 1919 to find their
council had been completely abolished by the federal government in Ottawa.
It was later restored to three members, one
each for Dawson City, Mayo and Whitehorse, after a great deal of pleading on
the part of northerners.
The size of the council remained unchanged
for the next three decades, through the Second World War, the construction of
the Alaska Highway and the Canol pipeline project, until 1951 when the council
was expanded to five members.
The next change came in 1960 with the Yukon
Act being amended to allow for seven elected members, and a year later three of
them were named to the advisory committee on finance to review government
estimates with senior administrative officers. This evolved into the budget
programming committee in 1968, with elected members actually working on the
preparation of the budget. This was the first input by elected representative
into the financial affairs of the government.
The real changes in the evolution of
responsible government occurred in 1970 with the creation of the executive
committee and the first direct participation of elected Yukoners in the
executive function of their government. The committee was established by
ministerial letter, from the Honourable Jean Chrétien on the recommendation of
Commissioner James Smith. It consisted of two elected representatives named by
their colleagues and three appointed senior civil servants; the Commissioner
and his two assistant commissioners.
The elected territorial councillors had been
calling for a direct voice in the affairs of government as well as the transfer
of territorial responsibilities to territorial control from various federal
departments. Some transfers, such as maintenance of federal highways and the
administration of justice, did occur.
But the day-to-day affairs of the Yukon
Territorial Government were still being run much the same as a colony; Yukon
politicians did not hesitate to describe Yukon as a Canadian colony run by
A growing and stable population and a
relatively prosperous economy supported the move to more responsible
government. New mines were opening up at the start of the 1970s and a mineral
staking rush was in progress. New roads were carved out of the wilderness and
the modern Anvil Mine town site, Faro, sprang up along the once remote banks of
the Pelly River.
Other smaller mines came into production,
Whitehorse expanded its boundaries to become one of the largest Canadian cities
(in area), the White Pass and Yukon Route upgraded its freight, rail, ocean and
trucking facilities and new business opened in Whitehorse to cash in on the
New subdivisions were created, the
territorial government embarked on an ambitious program to improve basic
services in all the rural communities, a new hydroelectric plant was under
construction, tourism was enjoying record numbers of visitors, Kluane Park was
created as the second largest national park in Canada, new hotels and tourist
facilities were constructed or expanded throughout the territory, and Yukon
soon became known for having the fastest growth rate of population in the
While many northerners were concerned about
the growing economy, others were concerned with obtaining a more direct voice
in the affairs of the territorial government.
The Yukon government, the local politicians
declared, was essentially "of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats and for
the bureaucrats". The major criticism was that the bureaucrats were living
in Ottawa but dictating how Yukon residents were to lead their daily lives.
This inevitably caused animosity towards policies enunciated in Ottawa by the
federal government and its officials.
The elected territorial councillors found
themselves questioning all policies introduced by Ottawa. This resulted in many
heated battles of "us" the Yukon residents, versus "them" –
the Ottawa mandarins. In fact, the Commissioner and administration became
"the government" and the elected territorial councillors were
There was a feeling, in Yukon, that Ottawa
was simply allowing piecemeal control of local affairs and any real moves
towards territorial control were to be regarded as an intrusion into the
activities of the federal bureaucracy. The impression was that the Yukon Territorial
Government was simply a subbranch of the department of Indian and Northern
Affairs and could not be elevated to any true government status.
The transition, from a government of
bureaucrats to a government of elected people began in the early 1960s with the
establishment of the Advisory Committee on Finance.
The committee allowed for two, and later
three, territorial councillors to take part in the formulation of the
government's budget. It brought about the first major role reversal for Yukon's
elected representatives and was the foot in the door for the territorial
councillors wanting more voice in the affairs of government.
The success of the finance committee, and,
later, the budget programming committee, lent support for the creation of the first
Executive Committee in 1970.
The Yukon Act authorized the Commissioner to
administer the territory. It was a written constitution, but the creation of
the Executive Committee by ministerial mandate began the development of an
unwritten constitution for the territory.
There was no legislative basis for the
creation of the Executive Committee, or "excom11 as it became known
locally. The Yukon Act was not amended to allow for appointments to the
executive committee and there was always the knowledge that excorn could be
altered drastically by superceding letters from the current minister of Indian
and northern affairs.
The creation of the first excom permitted
two of the seven elected territorial councillors to assume ministerial-styled
portfolios for several Yukon government departments, similar to provincial
The council had acted as a unified voice of
independent members prior to 1970 election saw several Liberals and a number of
New Democrat Party candidates in the running; the election resulted in four
Liberals and three independents taking their seat on the council.
The territorial council's tradition, that of
independent members who acted in an advisory capacity to consider legislation
introduced by the Commissioner, whose only input into government policy was by
way of amendments to government ordinances, was altered forever by the advent
of partisan members on the council and the creation of the Executive Committee.
Those two steps also affected the outcome of the 1974 and 1978 territorial elections
and set the stage for further constitutional changes in the parliamentary
The first two elected representatives on the
Executive Committee were nominated by members of the council and appointed by
the Commissioner as were subsequent members. This procedure remained in
practice until February, 1979.
The two elected members on the executive
committee found themselves defending government policy and facing continuous
opposition from their fellow members in the legislature. But despite internal
friction within the council, the members continued to lobby for further
The Yukon Act was amended in 1974 to allow
for 12 elected territorial council seats and promises from the northern affairs
minister that a third elected representative would sit on the executive
committee. The council also obtained permission from Ottawa to determine its
own future expansion of the number of constituencies from time to time, up to a
maximum of 20 seats.
The animosity created within caucus in the
first four years of the Executive Committee prompted many candidates to run as
independents and advocate against partisan politics inside the territorial
council chamber. The public appeared to agree with that stand and in 1974
elected nine independents and three New Democrats.
The first sitting of the new council saw the
members taking unwritten constitutional matters into their own hands. They,
voted to change the name of their Yukon Legislative Council to the Yukon
Legislative Assembly and they called for their elected Executive Committee
representatives to be known and styled as "ministers".
Both steps were ignored by Ottawa and
federal ministers and departments continued to address the Yukon House as the
territorial council and refused to recognize the title minister. It was argued
that the moves were not enshrined in the Yukon Act and were not legal. At one
session, the Commissioner was instructed to withhold consent to an Ordinance
which referred to Yukon Legislative Assembly.
This reticence on the federal government's
part to recognize the changing constitutional pattern, continued for five
years. It was not until October 9, 1979 that the minister of Indian and
northern affairs announced that the term Yukon Legislative Assembly would be
struck to consist of elected ministers and more direct control of Yukon
government affairs would be turned over to those elected representatives.
Meanwhile, the second evolutionary step for
the Executive Committee occurred in January 1975 when one of the appointed assistant
commissioners resigned his seat on leaving the government service and this
permitted a third elected person to sit on the committee. Portfolios were
redistributed and the elected members were assigned departments which directly
affected the daily lives of their constituents.
These were health, welfare and
rehabilitation (corrections), education, municipal affairs and highways and
public works. The appointed federal civil servants retained control over
departments directly related to the revenues of the government. These included
finance, liquor, tourism, territorial secretary's department and the Public
The structure of the executive committee was
further altered in 1977 to allow for four elected and two appointed members but
the Commissioner, as chairman, retained a veto over any measure passed in
The legislative assembly was expanded to 16
seats in time for the November 1978 election. This was the first election to be
contested by all three national political parties and the campaign resulted in
11 Conservatives, two Liberals, one New Democrat and two independents being
sworn in as MLAs.
The change in attitude which prompted the
first-ever partisan territorial election campaign came from the elected members
themselves and particularly from members who had been opposed to partisan
activities during the previous election. Executive Committee members continued
to find themselves on the defensive in the expanded assembly, without any solid
and or consistent support from fellow members to have government legislation
It was realized that the only system which
would work in the legislature was the traditional party system to guarantee the
government enough voting strength for the passage of new policies and programs.
The election of a Progressive Conservative
majority in the Yukon legislature in November, 1978 permitted the party members
to form the government and nominate their fellow members, and their party
leader, to positions on the executive committee.
The minister of Indian and Northern Affairs
permitted a fifth elected member to be appointed in January 1979 and the
combination came from the government leader and not by way of a legislative
assembly resolution. The appointment was made by the Commissioner and another
piece in Yukon's growing but unwritten constitution was in place.
The minister brought in further political
changes when he issued a new letter of instructions to the Commissioner in
January 1979. The Commissioner was to abide by all decisions of the executive
committee which were of strictly territorial jurisdiction. However, the
Commissioner would retain a veto over matters of direct federal concern,
including finance, constitutional development and native Indian affairs and
continue to be the senior federal representative of a number of government
departments in Yukon.
The change of government in Ottawa following
the May, 1979 national general election opened new opportunities for the
continued evolution of responsible government in Yukon and the territorial
government leader personally delivered a letter to Indian and Northern Affairs
Minister Jake Epp when they met in Vancouver, June 18.
This letter outlined to the minister how the
development of responsible government could be contrived and these measures
included the establishment of a wholly elected Executive Council to replace the
Executive Committee; the transfer of the Commissioner's portfolios to Executive
Council members; the elimination of the Deputy Commissioner's post and
instructions to the Commissioner reducing the formerly predominate role in the
day-to-day administration of the Government of Yukon.
It was the Yukon government's view that the
Commissioner should be directed to follow the same constitutional practices
followed in comparable situations by the Lieutenant Governor of a province, and
that the elected government leader should assume the chairmanship of the
The minister concurred with those desires
when he issued a new letter of instruction October 9, 1979. The steps were
initiated October 22 with the swearing in of the first wholly-elected Yukon
Executive Council by Yukon Administrator Doug Bell, who had been deputy
The nominations for membership on the
Executive Council were presented by the government leader and appointed by the
administrator, acting in the absence of a Commissioner.
Yukon's evolutionary journey has not ended,
but has gone from being a government operated strictly along written
constitutional lines, as the American system is to a government operated in the
tradition of the British Parliamentary system.
Full provincial status, as we know it in
Canada, will not be attained until Yukoners have acquired complete fiscal
responsibility and full control of our natural resources two requirements tied
very closely with current developments in the expansion of northern energy
Meanwhile, the five Yukon men and women on
the Executive Council are working hard to prove that local, elected
representatives are responsible and can operate the Government of Yukon in a
As Lord Durham wrote in his famous report on
the problems of Upper Canada in 1837, "The colonists may not always know
what laws are best f or them, or which of their countrymen are the fittest for
conducting their affairs; but at least they have a greater interest in coming
to a right judgement on these points and will take greater pains to do so than
those whose welfare is very remotely and slightly affected by the good or bad
legislation of these portions of the Empire."