Yukon Legislature back in session, with new premier and new NDP deal

Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai arrives for a meeting of Canada's premiers in Ottawa last month. On Thursday, Pillai and Yukon's other MLAs will be back in the legislature to begin the spring sitting.  (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai arrives for a meeting of Canada's premiers in Ottawa last month. On Thursday, Pillai and Yukon's other MLAs will be back in the legislature to begin the spring sitting. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The spring sitting of the Yukon legislature begins Thursday with a new premier, a renewed Liberal-NDP alliance and a Yukon Party opposition hoping to depict the government as living on borrowed time.

This will be the first sitting for Premier Ranj Pillai since he was acclaimed as the new Liberal Party leader, succeeding former premier Sandy Silver. While there were calls from the Yukon Party to do so, Pillai — MLA for Porter Creek South — declined to call a general election to seek his own mandate as leader.

In a pre-sitting interview with CBC News, Pillai pointed to other provinces where new party leaders stepped into the premier's office and continued to govern. He said he had the support of Yukoners from many segments of the population, including those from the Yukon Party base.

Pillai has said people have been urging him to seek common ground with political leaders of various stripes.

"I've had tremendous support from people in my neighbourhood, people from different political parties. And again, my job right now is to put my head down and work on behalf of Yukoners," he said.

Just over two weeks after his January swearing-in, Pillai signed a renewed confidence and supply agreement (CASA) with Yukon NDP leader Kate White. By committing to a shared list of priorities, the deal allows the minority Liberal government to remain in power until the next election, set for 2025. By then, the two parties will have been linked through CASA for four years.

Mike Rudyk/CBC
Mike Rudyk/CBC

The Official Opposition characterizes the pact as an "NDP government with a Liberal figurehead." Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon believes it was made simply to keep the Liberals in power.

"They've run out of ideas. They've run out of steam. They're out of touch with Yukoners but they're able to maintain the support of the NDP by implementing their ideas," Dixon said.

However, the Yukon Party also endorses parts of CASA. Some priorities — including supporting fertility treatment, land-based healing programs and reviewing the move away from Individualized Education Plans — can be found in the party's 2021 campaign platform. 

As well, Dixon said he supports increased funding to recruit teachers and health care workers. He argues these are steps any government would take.

The alternative he offered is one that would push back against what he considers an "attack" on the private sector.

"In terms of commitments at this stage, I am completely comfortable saying that the Yukon Party would eliminate the ban on no-cause evictions, that we would eliminate rent control, that we would eliminate the current process for the minimum wage calculation — because we don't agree with them," Dixon said.

Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada
Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada

Pillai counters that CASA indeed reflects Liberal values, particularly with investing in education, health care and housing. He said roughly half the document's commitments were in his party's platform.

Pillai drew a distinction between the Liberals and NDP in how they view working with the private sector.

"When you talk about a personal vision, you're going to see things like making sure there's a balance between the quality of life for individuals but also making sure that we support the private sector, support investment and diversification in the private sector," Pillai said.

Everything in CASA 'comes from our side,' says NDP leader

NDP leader Kate White was also quick to put some distance between herself and the party she has pledged to collaborate with.

She contends that none of the CASA commitments since 2021 would have been achieved without the NDP. She argues that since forming government in 2016, the Liberals have dragged their feet on dental care, successor mining legislation and action on fertility and surrogacy.

"Everything in that confidence [and] supply agreement comes from our side. I stand by it. I stand by those convictions. I stand by those values and I stand by that direction," White said.

"And it's true. In 2025, people will be able to say whether or not they agreed with what I did or didn't do. And that's OK."

Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada
Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada

White stressed CASA is not a "blank cheque" and that the government has to work to maintain the NDP's confidence. Her party's focus this sitting will include access to health and social services, among them a CASA commitment to open a public walk-in clinic, along with expanding dental care. She also has her eye on the fate of the Macaulay Lodge site in Whitehorse, and the government's environmental policies.

Yet White's line in the sand remains unclear. She said where it falls is "a hard question and probably way too nuanced of an answer to get across right now."

In 2021, the NDP was confronted with the choice to topple the government following revelations of sexual abuse at Hidden Valley Elementary School. The Yukon Party tabled a non-confidence motion, but it was defeated without NDP support.

White recalled being haunted by letters from school families. But she has also felt gratified by other letters, from people seeing the dentist for the first time — something she says they were able to do thanks to policies enacted through CASA.

"You kind of have this push and pull of what you're trying to do and you know, ultimately, when I decide I'm done this job, I want to be able to look back and be like, 'OK, that was, you know overall, I'm pleased with what I did, what I was able to accomplish,'" White said.