After weeks of pressure, Whitehorse mayor writes letter in support of Gaza ceasefire

In a June 7 letter to Yukon's MP, Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott said that while international affairs are outside the city's jurisdiction, the conflict in Gaza has 'deeply troubled' many people in Whitehorse. (Chris Windeyer/CBC - image credit)

After weeks of contentious debate at Whitehorse city council about whether the city should weigh in on international issues, Mayor Laura Cabott has now written to the territory's MP in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

The letter, dated last Friday and sent by Cabott on behalf of city council, expresses support for Canada's call for a ceasefire.

It also calls for "an immediate release of the Israeli hostages as part of the efforts to advance a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Gaza."

Cabott writes in the letter that while international affairs are outside the city's jurisdiction, the conflict in Gaza has "deeply troubled" many people in Whitehorse.

"Many Whitehorse residents feel passionately about the need to end this conflict and have expressed their desire for Whitehorse to join those calling for an end to this fighting."

The question of whether city council should make a formal statement about the conflict has been front and centre at some recent council meetings.

Last month, Coun. Michelle Friesen presented a notice of motion expressing solidarity with Palestinians and calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. However, Coun. Kirk Cameron called a point of order objecting to that motion, saying it was outside council's jurisdiction.

Mayor Laura Cabott agreed with Cameron at the time and at a following meeting she upheld the point of order, stating that the motion was divisive and against the community's best interest.

That prompted a group of residents to pack council chambers the following week, urging council to reconsider the motion to support Palestinians. Some compared the response to the war in Gaza to the way councillors had earlier responded to the war in Ukraine.

Speaking to CBC News this week, Cabott acknowledged that the city sent a letter in early 2022 encouraging the federal government to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.

"In retrospect ... it was outside of our jurisdiction, but we did so. So in this case, we thought that we might be able to send the letter along the similar lines," she said.

Cabott said she hopes her letter to Yukon MP Brendan Hanley represents the different perspectives on the conflict that she's heard from city residents.

"I'm hopeful that with this letter signed on behalf of city council that we've acknowledged the situation in Gaza and looking for, of course, a ceasefire, but also looking for the release of the Israeli hostages and ultimately some type of lasting peace in the region, for all people."

Still, she's wary of any expectation that the city sound off about other national or international affairs. She said governments of all levels should stick to matters within their own jurisdiction or expertise, lest "things get muddled."

"Municipalities have a very important role to play in governing cities, and responding to residents' concerns. But we really do need to stay within our jurisdiction and leave those other matters to other levels of government," she said.

Lisa Vollans-Leduc, vice-president of the Yukon Employees' Union, was among the delegates who spoke to council in recent weeks, in support of Friesen's original motion about Gaza. She called Cabott's letter to Hanley this past week a "good start."

"I think they felt the pressure, mayor and council, that we all showed up. We all spoke passionately and with compassion," she said this week.

However, Vollans-Leduc questions exactly how the letter came about, and how much discussion there was over the wording.

"I still think it could have been stronger, and it could have included members of the community who showed up to speak," she said.