Yukon News

Yukon’s political history: on the record

Jacqueline Ronson Wednesday June 5, 2013

Ian Stewart/Yukon News

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Lois Cameron retired from the Hansard Office at the Yukon legislature last month after 38 years.

Few will ever know Yukon’s legislative assembly as intimately as Lois Cameron.

She retired in May after working in the Hansard office for 38 years.

In a windowless basement office next to the house chamber, her job has been to produce daily transcripts of all debates before the legislative assembly.

She came up young and single in the spring of 1975 on a contract with a court reporting firm based in Vancouver.

“I always wanted to come. The Yukon was on my list. But I was young, and I would go anywhere!”

Here, she met the man she would eventually marry, and stayed.

For more than a decade she has been in charge of the Hansard office, running a staff of about 10 transcribers, editors and proofreaders.

Since 1975, she has only missed one session of the legislature - her son was born on the opening day of the sitting - and never took a sick day.

She has seen Yukon evolve from the days before devolution, land claims and party politics to the sophisticated province-like house that we have today.

With all of that experience behind her, she knows a thing or two about what works - and what doesn’t - in the representative democracy system that guides much of the world.

“I think our whole political system - it’s just the way it is. It’s democracy, I think it could be tweaked, but it’s the best we have.”

The first tweak that Cameron would make would be to rename the Official Opposition.

“I just find that the word ‘opposition’ requires that they have to oppose, no matter what they have to find fault. If they were called the Alternates, they’d have to come up with an alternate,” said Cameron.

The Yukon legislature has evolved to become more and more adversarial over the years.

In the days before party politics, the members disagreed but always got along, she said. At the end of each sitting, all members and staff could go out for food and drinks together to analyze, reflect and celebrate.

That doesn’t happen anymore, said Cameron.

But in those days the assembly also didn’t have much power. It was a “rubber stamp,” with the commissioner, who was appointed by Ottawa, wielding ultimate authority.

It would be regressive to go back to that sort of system, said Cameron.

If she were in charge, Cameron would also place further limits on the amount of time that members can speak, she said.

“If they can muster up enough to talk for three hours, they can do that, and I’ve watched many do it, just to avoid bringing a motion to a vote. Both sides of the house - I’ve seen both sides do that. I don’t think it serves the taxpayer.”

Under the so-called guillotine clause, introduced with all-party support in 1991, all bills yet to receive further debate are voted on during the last half hour of the final sitting day of a session.

Since then, millions of budget dollars have passed without scrutiny in this fashion.

The standing order change also limited each year’s legislative sittings to 60 days, split between two sittings.

This was a good change for civil servants and Hansard staff, said Cameron.

She has memories of 78-day sittings and all-night debates.

The one group who does not benefit is the opposition, she said.

Before, opposition members could use filibustering as a tool to encourage the government to compromise.

Now, the government can use it as a tool to avoid debate.

Cameron has become “a bit jaded” about the political process, but has no regrets, she said.

“It’s been a great life. I have certainly appreciated the dedication that the politicians put into the job. It’s not an easy job, it’s a fairly thankless job.

“I think they all have had good intentions along the way and have done their best.”

Outside the house chambers and in the Hansard office, things have gone very smoothly under Cameron’s leadership.

It’s the fastest Hansard production in any jurisdiction that she is aware of.

Hansards are produced across legislative assemblies in commonwealth countries.

“None of the other Hansard editors in the country believe that the transcribers leave within 15 minutes,” said Cameron. “They’re all gone within 15 minutes, but the first ones are starting to leave within five after the house adjourns at the end of the day.”

In other places, it could be four or five hours before transcribers have finished their work, she said.

The biggest difference?

In the Yukon, the section of tape taken on by each transcriber at a time is only 1.5 minutes in length, compared to 3-5 minutes elsewhere.

“That’s what gives us the speed, because within 15 minutes of the house sitting they’re all working. And then within another 10 minutes the editors are working. And so within another 10 minutes the proofreader has got work to go. So then it’s just a steady flow for the rest of the day.”

So far, she hasn’t been able to convince other offices across the country to change their ways.

But these days she has other things on her mind.

Cameron plans to spend lots of time on her boat, based out of Skagway.

“I hope to spend my summer on it and not have to worry that they might spring a session on me in the middle of September,” she said.

She may be retired, but she’s not slowing down.

Cameron hopes to volunteer for a school reading program, learn Spanish, go travelling and do some more skydiving, she said.

Meanwhile, in the Hansard office, Cameron’s faithful staff will continue to push out transcripts faster than anyone in the country.

“The public has a right to know what’s being said in there,” she said. “I don’t know how many people read Hansard - probably not very many - but if you did want to know, then it’s there, it’s available for you, you can see what your politicians are doing for you.”

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