4 things to watch as Yukon MLAs gather for fall sitting

Since Yukon MLAs wrapped up the spring sitting of the Legislative Assembly in April, cost of living complaints have only intensified, the housing shortage has no end in sight, and a health-care staffing crunch has reared its head in the Yukon’s smaller communities.

All signs point to a spicy fall session for MLAs. Here are four issues to follow over the next six weeks (give or take).

1. The cost of living crunch

Rising prices are hammering people across the country, but the inflation rate in Whitehorse (Statistics Canada doesn’t track inflation data for the territory as a whole) sits at a nation-high 5.2 per cent at last count. Prices for energy and household goods are down, but everything else is up, especially food and housing which are, sources say, necessities.

“The rate of growth of the cost of living in Yukon is worse than any other part of the country and we haven’t seen any action from the government on that,” said Official Opposition Leader Currie Dixon of the Yukon Party, in a pre-session interview.

Not true, said Premier Ranj Pillai, listing off a series of rebates and subsidies introduced by his government, without discussing their effectiveness. Pillai also cited $10-per-day childcare, public dental insurance and rent control as other examples. 

Meanwhile, the territory’s two electrical utilities are both applying for rate hikes and the government is moving ahead with plans to lease backup diesel generators. Expect to hear plenty from the opposition parties about both those files.

“When we talk about building energy resiliency in the territory, right now it’s all on the the backs of ratepayers and it has to change,” said NDP Leader Kate White. “It has to be viewed as infrastructure investments like highways or schools or hospitals.” 

2. Housing hell

Home sale prices have cooled in the territory, thanks to higher interest rates. But those higher interest rates are pushing up mortgage rates, which are hammering homeowners. Renters, meanwhile, must cope with higher rents (despite the rent cap, which only limits increases to current tenants), and a serious shortage of market rentals.

With a vacancy rate around two per cent, renters often can’t find a place at any price. Pillai is optimistic that, in Whitehorse at least, new housing supply from both the public and private sectors will help.

“What it really comes down to is, we need as much supply as possible and we have to set conditions to ensure there’s this much supply and that supply has to be rental,” he said.

Dixon said the rent cap has scared landlords out of the rental market and is discouraging investment in rental apartments.

3. Rural health care in crisis

It’s been a tough summer for health-care services in the Yukon’s smaller communities, from limited ambulance services in Dawson City and Watson Lake, to clinic closures in Ross River, Mayo and elsewhere, to specialized services being centralized in Whitehorse.

The government has said all of these issues are a product of the global shortage of health care workers. It has also rolled out incentives to recruit and retain nurses and other professionals.

White pins a major part of the problem on the housing shortage.

“People are looking for places to live and rural Yukon is especially hurting,” she said. “So because there’s not housing in rural Yukon, because there’s not building lots, we have problems, for example, getting teachers or getting health care workers.”

4. Election rumblings?

With the Liberals clinging to power thanks to a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the NDP, Pillai’s margin for political error is slim. The NDP has been able to extract policy concessions from the minority Liberals (for example, the rent cap and dental insurance), but in an interview last week, White didn’t exactly shut the door on walking away from the deal if the Liberals don’t continue to play ball.

Meanwhile, Dixon is flat out calling for the Liberals to dissolve the assembly and call an election. Dixon says Pillai, who has yet to lead the Liberals into election campaign, should seek a mandate from voters. This is also a tad self-serving: the Yukon Party thinks it has an advantage in the polls. But, Dixon insists, that’s also what people want.

People don’t exactly have a strong record of demanding early elections: if anything, they’re more likely to recoil in disgust at the idea. But the Yukon’s three parties are stuck with the unwieldy pizza parliament voters gave them, so perhaps voters shouldn’t be surprised if the result is dysfunction.

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