November 18, 2005

The Yukon’s bellwether riding heads to the polls (from November 18 issue of the Yukon News)

As a riding, Copperbelt suffers from multi-personality disorder.

Rich and poor, environmentalist and capitalists, civil servants and libertarians — it has them all.

It is a study in extremes.

Just what are “core issues” for a district that encompasses Squatters’ Row, Hillcrest, Logan, Granger, Pine Ridge, Wolf Creek, McRae and Copper Ridge?

Residents in these disparate subdivisions rarely mix.

Some are urban, upper-middle classers with two cars and a mortgage; others live in the countryside, well below the poverty line.

And that diversity makes it a bellwether riding — a good gauge of the public mood.

On Monday, it will vote for one of the territory’s three political parties as it elects a new MLA.

Tapping a common public sentiment in the riding has been the conundrum faced by Yukon Party candidate Cynthia Kearns, Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell and NDP candidate Maureen Stephens.

They have to sort it out, said David Sloan, a former education minister and Whitehorse-West MLA (which once comprised much of what is now Copperbelt) under the NDP government of Piers MacDonald.

He is now a Liberal who’s helping Mitchell knock on doors.

“When I stepped into the riding as MLA, it had traditionally been a very NDP area — with the area of Hillcrest, where people have very strong environmental ethics, and areas like Lobird,” said Sloan on Thursday.

“Now, of course, with the development of Granger, that changed. All that new area — Logan, Arkell and Copper Ridge — really changed the demographic of the riding. It became far less an NDP riding and far more of a right-of-centre riding.”

Unlike most ridings, Copperbelt just keeps getting bigger, thanks to new houses cropping up in Copper Ridge.

Almost 1,300 voters were registered there during the last election. Only Whitehorse’s two Riverdale ridings were bigger.

But, as of Thursday, the number of Copperbelt voters on the Elections Yukon rolls stood at 1,576, and could top 1,600 after the final revision.

That makes Copperbelt the Yukon’s largest riding.

“You’ve got an arts community smack dab in the riding with Squatters’ (Row),” said Sloan. “They have very definite concerns, they will ask you questions on support for the arts.

“Some people in Lobird tend to have concerns with day-to-day realities, such as the cost of heating and public transportation, which is a huge issue up in Lobird.

“And people up in newer parts, they have issues around provision of services and development of the transportation corridor.

“A big issue for them is another access route out of the riding. A major concern for the folks out in Pine Ridge is the development of a new subdivision out there, and the access road into that.

“It forces you, as a candidate, to be far more appreciative of the kind of diversity of people who are voting there.

“You can’t go in and espouse a traditional party line, because the community is much more diverse.”

In 2002, Yukon Party candidate Haakon Arntzen logged 374 votes to Mitchell’s 312 in Copperbelt.
Lillian Grubach-Hambrook, running for the NDP, took 263 votes.

Arntzen remained Copperbelt’s MLA until September, when he resigned after being convicted on several sexual assault charges in May.

•••••

About 45 people attended a debate between Kearns, Mitchell and Stephens at École Emily Tremblay in Copper Ridge on Thursday evening.

However, more than half the crowd was made up of people with political ties, like cabinet minister Elaine Taylor, government handlers and party operatives.

Sorely lacking were people from the country-residential areas of Copperbelt.

During the debate, Kearns appeared smooth, folksy and relaxed — though often followed Premier Dennis Fentie’s approach to questions by eschewing outright answers for listing government achievements.

She hopes to bring another woman to the Yukon Party’s ranks and thus, more “balance,” she said.

“My party is being painted as a bunch of unethical individuals,” she said. “This is just not the case. The Yukon Party is made up of people just like me. Ethical people, people that care.”

Mitchell was more scripted than Kearns.

He pounded the Yukon Party on a few common themes: the government’s ethics surrounding the Arntzen issue (though nobody mentioned Arntzen by name at the meeting), and its handling of the economy.

“Copperbelt is once again without representation,” said Mitchell. “People are embarrassed by the low ethical standards set by the current government.”

Maureen Stephens looked nervous, but delivered her message effectively.

She hitched her political wagon to Arntzen’s unflattering legacy as Copperbelt’s former MLA, hitting on five main concerns: ethics, education, environment, medicare and substance abuse.

Many of the questions seemed tailored to play to political strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.

"If you were premier," read the first question, "would you appoint a person to cabinet if they owed Yukon taxpayers for business loans they had received?"

“No,” said Mitchell. “We would change the standards so that any MLA that owes money to Yukon taxpayers couldn’t serve in cabinet without paying their loans.”

“I think those loans survived the NDP and Liberal governments before any action was taken on them, and this government was the first government to actually take action on those loans,” said Kearns.

You can’t run in a municipal election if you owe money, noted Stephens.

“I think we should have the same standards for MLAs.”

The economy was also a hot issue.

Kearns espoused a now-familiar Yukon Party line — that Yukoners are “happier” and that the economy is healthy.

But both Mitchell and Stephens argued the territory’s fortunes are thanks to the federal government, not the Yukon Party.

Kearns didn’t mention ideas to strengthen the economy, other than urging people to vote for the Yukon Party.

“We need a strong economy to drive social programs,” she said, “particularly, for those new young families living their dreams in their beautiful new homes.”

Mitchell hopes the Yukon stops “just pursuing the megaprojects,” and starts diversifying.

Stephens wants to build economic sustainability, and warned that, though things are booming, a bust is undoubtedly around the corner.

The Yukon should build a university, she said.

•••••

“I was disappointed by the very first question, when Cynthia did not answer whether or not she’d have somebody in the cabinet that owed money,” said Copperbelt resident Doug Mowat after the debate.

“That sort of symbolizes what I think the Yukon Party stands for.”

“I kind of do think (the upcoming byelection) is a referendum, but I also think the Yukon government is not being held to account, even in this discussion,” he said.

“My guess is that this is a heads-up one way or the other for the Yukon Party.”

Others, who weren’t at the meeting, aren’t sure Copperbelt can truly be represented by one candidate.

The riding is split into wildly different worldviews, said Gary Bemis, a 54-year-old resident of Squatters’ Row.

On one hand there are people like him. On the other, “there’s the urban mindset, the vinyl-ghetto mindset,” he said.

“People are more inclined to deal with majority issues, and the majority live in an urban setting, rather than a country-residential one like here,” said Bemis, who has lived on Squatters’ Row for 33 years.

Where you live seems to dictate how you think, and only Mitchell lives in Copperbelt … “and he’s a real estate agent,” he said.

“I don’t think they would identify with this lifestyle. Issues here are quite different than a setting that has all the conveniences.”

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