Penikett recalls years of dominance from the left
With a mix of humour and history, and a scope ranging from Bolivia to the village of Old Crow,
Photo by Justine Davidson
STAR POWER – Former NDP leader Tony Penikett, left, is joined by his twin daughters Sarah and Stephanie, and his son Tahmoh at the New Democrats’ gala dinner Friday night at the High Country Inn. All three of his Yukon-raised children are actors.
With a mix of humour and history, and a scope ranging from Bolivia to the village of Old Crow, former NDP government leader Tony Penikett spoke to a room full of party faithful Friday, there to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the New Democrats’ historic win in the Yukon legislature.
The 64-year-old man, a celebrity in his own right, was introduced by his son, Tahmoh, a Los Angeles-based actor who has entered the limelight in the last few years with roles in Battlestar Galactica and The Dollhouse.
After excusing himself for being a poor public speaker, the younger Penikett had the crowd of 200 laughing, mostly at themselves, as he recalled his years growing up as the child of the party.
There were warm reminiscences of the coffee- and cigarette-fueled meetings which accompanied the party’s rapid rise from one-seat player in 1981 to minority leader in 1985 (“You all smoked back then,” he teased), and a little boy’s jealous memories of having to share his dad with every other person in the Yukon.
Tahmoh also recognized his mother’s role in the NDP’s success with Yukon first nations people. As a member of the White River First Nation, Lulla Sierra Johns helped to connect first nations Yukoners to a political process dominated by non-natives, he said.
The prominence of aboriginal people in the party of the ’80s was celebrated time and time again Friday. Sam Johnston, the first aboriginal Speaker of the House in the entire Commonwealth, was present.
As was Margaret Joe, the first aboriginal woman to sit as minister of justice in Canada. She was one of six New Democrats elected in 1982, and when she was made minister of Justice and the Women’s Directorate in ’85, she fought for pay equity and poured money into child care programs, “the most popular social policy initiative that we ever had,” Tony Penikett said.
He described Johnston as “one of nature’s gentlemen.” As Speaker, Johnston was the one to rein Penikett in during question period, “which he did often, but always kindly.”
A CBC television story from 1985 shows a beaming Dave Porter, the unlikely incumbent in Watson Lake, where racial tensions and a non-aboriginal majority made the Kaska man’s win all but unbelievable. The former broadcaster became House leader and the Yukon’s first human rights commissioner.
Fully half of Penikett’s eight-person caucus was of first nation descent; a byelection win in 1987 by former Selkirk chief Danny Joe meant a majority of government seats were held by aboriginal people, a first for the territory, and a balance which has never been struck since.
Although the two terms following the 1985 election are aptly called the NDP’s glory years, its victory was born of hard times.
“The Yukon was not a happy place when we came to power in 1985,” Penikett said. “All of our major mines were shutting; the economy was going into a major recession; our population was shrinking and most important our land claim negotiations had broken down.”
People chose the NDP because they needed a party which would defend and build a social safety net, Penikett said, and the NDP responded.
He praised the work of former independent Maurice Byblow, who joined the party in 1981 and worked to re-open the Faro mine, the closure of which had “devastated” the Town of Faro.
Roger Kimmerly left a seat on the judge’s bench to run in a byelection, then was given the Justice portfolio and, among other achievements, opened Kaushee’s Place, “Yukon’s first purpose-built women’s transition home.” He also brought forward the Yukon Human Rights Act, only the second such act in the country. It banned discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, gender or race.
“That legislation stirred up one angry tea party of debate ... and that could still be going on today if our friends the Conservatives had not come to our aid,” Penikett said. He recalled then-Conservative leader Willard Phelps arguing such legislation would require “separate washrooms for gays throughout the territory,” a comment which convinced the public “the opposition had gone over the top.”
“But it didn’t stop there,” Penikett went on. “Some time later, a very exotic press release came out from a Chinese news agency and it reported that as a result of our legislation here in the Yukon, thousands and thousands of lesbians were climbing the Chilkoot trail coming to live here.
“Welcome!” he added.
Piers McDonald, who would lead the party when it regained power in 1996, “was the real workhorse in our cabinet,” Penikett said.
McDonald oversaw the construction of new schools in Dawson City, Old Crow and Watson Lake, as well as the creation of a facility for teen mothers who wanted to continue going to high school.
As minister of Community and Transportation, he reconstructed or paved “almost every highway in the territory” as well as opened up the Skagway Road year round.
“He once remarked to me: ‘Did I know he was responsible for spending two-thirds of the total Yukon budget?” Penikett recalled. “It needs saying that he was not complaining.”
Art Webster was deputy speaker and minister of Renewable Resources. “Art wrote an environmental act which more than one commentator called the best legislation of its kind.”
Then there was the young Norma Kassi of Old Crow; “the most eloquent defender of the Porcupine caribou herd, which has sustained the Vuntut Gwitchin for thousands of years.”
She and Joe argued that Yukon College must have family residences, a child care centre and an early learning centre so the many young mothers from the communities could study while raising their children.
“Seeing the many young women who graduate with teaching degrees and social work degrees, shows how right they were,” Penikett said.
In 1987, Danny Joe, a former chief of the Selkirk First Nation, won a by-election which gave the New Democrats majority status.
Although the Umbrella Final Agreement was not signed until the mid-1990s, much of the negotiations which led to “the most progressive self-government agreements going” were undertaken by the New Democrats, Penikett said.
But as the ‘80s drew to a close, communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and “all the old certainties of left and right evaporated.”
Penikett described the slow but merciless change that has come over democratic politics, with social democrats moving more and more to the right to win votes from the growing middle class. The same shift occurred internationally.
“In 2001, we suffered the cruelest blow to our sense of ourselves ... when Britain’s labour prime minister Tony Blair joined U.S. president George Bush in the war against Iraq; a war that took tens of thousands of innocent lives, men women and children. While Blair still expresses no remorse for those lives, social democrats the world over felt nothing but horror and shame.
“... The last two decades were a time of some sadness for the democratic left,” he said. “Social democrats everywhere in the world seemed to lose heart, we were less brave, less kind and less creative than we once had been.”
He described the right as convincing the middle class that the poor and the old and the young and minorities were
undeserving. “That the social safety net should be shredded and that public institutions be privatized.
“ ... Ironically, this has made social democrats somewhat conservative,” he said, referring to the fact they have had to defend existing institutions. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve had to go back and fight some old battles over and over again.”
As Penikett the mediator noted after his keynote address, he can’t speak overtly about policy, lest he one day be called in to help negotiate its execution, but there was no shortage of advice tucked within his memories of the past 25 years.
He called on the example set in South America, where aboriginal groups have joined forces with labour groups to not just reinstate left-wing governments, but also to socialize industry and promote social justice.
He hearkened back to the 1970s, when he described Yukon politics as the Liberals and Conservatives vying for control over the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.
“Our project was to set out to represent everyone else. We wanted to represent people in the native villages (as they were called then), and the mining communities.”
That was the winning formula, as the party won a bulk of its seats in rural ridings.
He urged the party, which has suffered from a dwindling membership in the last years, to focus on dialogue instead of conflict and to ask Yukoners what they want for their communities and their future.