Ione Christensen baked Christmas cookies for reporters before inviting them to her home in Whitehorse to announce her retirement from Canada’s upper house.
It was the sort of touch that underlined her good nature, and spoke volumes about the difficult decision the 73-year-old Yukon senator had to make.
“My husband has been suffering vision loss for the last three years and it’s reached a point where he really needs assistance at home,” said Christensen on Thursday.
“He’s supported me for over 30 years in all of my political (endeavors) and it’s not been easy. He needs me at home now.”
Christensen officially retires from the Senate at the end of December.
Most politicians are partisan and polarizing, but Christensen is the opposite — a tall, eloquent elder stateswoman who commands respect and admiration.
After she ensured everyone had a snack and a drink of sherry — from cups bearing the Senate coat of arms, no less — Christensen recalled her past, which saw her blaze the trail for women politicians in the Yukon.
She became the territory’s first female justice of the peace in 1971.
In 1975, she became the first woman mayor of Whitehorse, winning re-election in 1977.
Two years later she became the first female commissioner of the Yukon, resigning in the same year after being approached by several parties to run in the coming federal election in 1980.
“Up until that point, I had no political affiliations at all,” said Christensen. “So I got a bunch of books at the University of Alberta on political science and I read through all different parties, and thought, ‘Where do I fit?’
“Everything fit well with the Liberals.”
Christensen lost the 1980 federal election to Erik Neilsen, who ran for the Progressive Conservatives.
She went on to chair several boards, committees and hearings in the Yukon, as well as serving as executive director for myriad organizations, including Petro-Canada’s northern operations, and the drug and alcohol treatment centre in Whitehorse.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed Christensen to the Senate in 1999 after former Yukon senator Paul Lucier died.
She will retire with about 22 months left before she turns 75, the imposed retirement age in the Senate.
She could easily keep going, she said, but eschewed the typical tributes and parties for retiring senators in Ottawa.
“I felt that I just wanted to go quietly into the sunset, back to the Yukon,” she said.
Being from the furthest region from Ottawa saw Christensen stay in the city and come back to the Yukon an average of one week out of every five.
But with her husband’s failing eyesight slowly preventing him from walking alone, recognizing people and even turning on the television, Christensen knew it was time to hang up her hat.
“I was away from home almost three-quarters of the year,” she said. “That is not always the most satisfactory. It’s not easy.”
Still, she’s sad to leave: she reveled in her job as a senator and is proud of many of her accomplishments.
Those include sponsoring amendments to the Yukon Act, changes that 20 years earlier prompted her to resign as the Yukon’s commissioner, as they were not written into legislation.
Christensen finally changed that as a senator.
Her last speech in the Senate was on the Conservative government’s recent literacy cutbacks.
She plans to focus on her advocacy work for people with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder now that she’s returned to the Yukon.
The Senate is an important part of the democratic process, as many bills are written by urban MPs who don’t understand the realities of rural Canada, she said.
Those include changes to animal cruelty laws that, if passed, would make it illegal for many Yukoners to hunt, fish and live traditional lifestyles.
Christensen has pushed for changes; whoever takes her Yukon seat will have to do the same.
And that’s the most difficult part of her retirement: the unknown of what happens now, she explained.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently introduced a bill that would create provincial and territorial plebescites to consult voters on appointments to the Senate.
The idea is modeled on the Australian system, and would ostensibly allow people to put names forward and for voters to select their senators.
Christensen doesn’t like it.
“It leaves a lot of questions to be answered,” she said. “It doesn’t say exactly how people can be nominated — if they can be appointed for more than typical eight years.
“This is a backdoor approach; I feel it’s definitely just a political approach. Mr. Harper promised to move towards an elected Senate. Through this bill he is doing what he promised to do. And I really think he probably has his fingers crossed and is hoping there’s an election before it can go through.”
If the changes do pass the Senate could be split into two factions — appointed and elected senators — and the regional powers provincial and territorial premiers have could be significantly reduced, she said.
“It raises more questions than it answers. If it went through it would make a profound change. There has to be more dialogue,” said Christensen.
“It doesn’t mean to say it’s wrong. But you never get a system totally free of problems. You just change one set of problems for a new set of problems.”
Harper has been reluctant to appoint senators, as he has long pushed for a Senate based on voting, not appointments.
His only Senate appointment has been Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, who fills his role in cabinet from the upper house, not the House of Commons.
Ten Senate seats remain empty in the interim, Christensen noted.
She hopes someone is found to replace her sooner rather than later.
“My role is totally different than any of the senators in the provinces,” she said. “The three territories, we only have one senator and one MP (each).
“We try to act as a backup for our MPs, to take up the slack. Larry (Bagnell) is very busy. We do a lot more constituency work than other senators do. We’re more hands on.”
But now that she’s retiring, Christensen is looking forward to getting re-acquainted with the Yukon.
Her last hike over the Chilkoot Trail was in 1998.
She’s done it 21 times already, and despite having had her hip replaced, she’s planning to do it again.