Yukon News

Not your typical riding meeting

John Thompson Friday May 21, 2010

LAKE LABERGE

They do politics out here differently.

It’s Wednesday evening inside the gym of Hidden Valley Elementary School, and the executive of the Yukon Party riding association are collecting their things as they prepare to go home.

The party’s members, meanwhile, are watching in bewilderment. The meeting had barely started when the executive quit in a huff, leaving about 60 members wondering how to proceed.

“I’m outta here,” said President Smiley Ford. “You guys put the chairs away.”

The source of discord sits a few rows from the front of the room. He’s the only person in the room wearing a suit, in a riding where camouflaged baseball caps and oversized belt buckles are more typical. It’s Brad Cathers, the riding’s MLA.

Until the autumn, Cathers was the territory’s minister of Energy, Mines and Resources. Then he had a noisy falling out with Premier Dennis Fentie over the ATCO energy privatization scandal. As Cathers tells it, Fentie lied to the public when he denied contemplating selling-off Yukon’s energy assets. Then Fentie asked Cathers to do the same.

Instead, Cathers quit. He now sits on the far side of the legislature as an Independent.

But Cathers remains a Yukon Party member. He would like to return to the government side of the House - once Fentie leaves.

Fentie, meanwhile, has no plans of doing so. This dispute has opened up a rift in the ruling party. And there’s no better view of the simmering civil war than in this gym.

The meeting would stretch on for more than three hours. By its end, a new executive would be elected that is largely supportive of Cathers. And delegates would be picked to attend the party’s annual meeting next weekend with plans to trigger a leadership review, which could - although the odds seem extremely slim - ouster Fentie.

The association’s old executive would call this outcome a “coup.” When the meeting started, they wanted the first order of business to be kicking Cathers out of the room.

“Is everyone here tonight to support the Yukon Party?” asked Mike Blumenschein, the association’s vice-president, who initially chaired the meeting. He jabbed a finger at Cathers. “Brad, how about you?”

“Of course,” Cathers replied, who recapped how he supported the party, but not Fentie.

Blumenschein insisted that attacking the leader should be grounds for excommunication. He noted the party constitution required members to support the party, and that Cathers was now sitting with “the opposition” across the floor.

“What do you call support?” countered Al Falle, who served as the riding’s Conservative MLA during the 1980s and has lately made it no secret he dislikes Fentie. “If everyone has to agree on everything, you’re talking about something that doesn’t exist.

“I may support the policies, but I don’t support you,” said Falle. “That’s my business. And every Yukon Party member here has the right to disagree.

“I support Brad because he’s honest, he has integrity, and he does a hell of a good job for the riding.”

Others piped up, largely in support of Cathers. One woman called Fentie a “crook.” Another complained that she couldn’t square the premier’s actions with how she had taught her son “to tell the truth.”

Rick Nielsen urged calm. He noted the purpose of the meeting was to elect delegates to the annual meeting and called for the agenda to be adopted. The motion passed.

Blumenschein then proceeded to veer off agenda by launching another attack on Cathers.

Eventually, one person in the crowd complained “someone who knows how to run a meeting” should help Blumenschein. The executive took this as a cue to pack up and leave.

“We’ve been good enough for seven years,” said Blumenschein. “How come we’re not good enough now?”

As Smiley Ford would later say in an interview: “We don’t make a living bullshitting people.”

After the executive stormed out of the room, members wondered if they had no choice but to adjourn. But, if they did so, there wouldn’t be time to hold another meeting to pick delegates for the annual meeting. Lake Laberge, which has nearly 100 party members, would have no representation.

Someone flipped through the party constitution. It appeared as if the only requirement for the meeting was that 10 members be present. They had plenty more than that.

So Larry Carlyle resumed chairing the meeting. Falle would call the outcome a victory for the party’s “grassroots.” Ford and Blumenschein would grumble that Cathers had stacked the meeting with members who, in cases, had signed up just days before the meeting.

Ford is particularly unhappy that Cathers will be one of Laberge’s delegates. “That’s pretty appalling to me,” he said. “That’s a lot of nerve, that kid’s got.”

Big questions remain. To start, will the central Yukon Party organization accept the Lake Laberge delegates to the annual meeting?

One complication was that when the association’s secretary left, so did the riding’s membership list. As a jury-rigged solution, every voter’s name was taken down to later be verified.

Even if Lake Laberge’s delegates are accepted, will they succeed in triggering a leadership review? It seems improbable. Every riding sends six delegates, and the ridings held by government members are likely under the premier’s thumb.

If a leadership review is triggered, who would replace Fentie? Cathers insists he has no interest in the premier’s seat. If not him, then who? He’s the only elected member to publicly challenge the premier.

And if Fentie holds on to power, what happens to Cathers? Will he remain Lake Laberge’s Yukon Party nominee? Or will the party run a candidate against him?

The association’s new executive is largely comprised of Cathers supporters. But candidates need the premier’s approval. Fentie can nix a nomination for Cathers, but only at the risk of escalating the feud in Lake Laberge.

As Blumenschein said after the meeting: “This ain’t over by a long shot.”

Contact John Thompson at

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