The Yukon is home to a thriving population of 36,000 people, cold winters, the midnight sun, an active arts and culture scene and a strong economy. It’s also home to a series of firsts and significant achievements for women in politics. Ever since women started coming up the Chilkoot Pass on the hunt for gold, they’ve been brave trailblazers and politics in the Yukon have clearly displayed this.
Yukon women obtained the right to vote and seek elected office through an amendment of the Yukon Territory Act in 1919.
The territory elected its first woman as representative in 1935, when Independent Conservative Martha Louise Black was elected to the House of Commons, becoming the second woman in Canadian history to do so. Black was a particular woman. According to Joyce Hayden’s book Yukon’s women of power: Political pioneers in a northern Canadian colony, Black was a divorced American who had followed the call for gold to the Klondike. She married George Black, a man seven years her junior in 1904 and they became known as Mr and Mrs Yukon. George was first chosen as the Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912 and was elected to the House of Commons nine years later. He fell ill and when the 1935 election rolled around, Martha didn’t hesitate to put her name on the ballot. She was elected and spoke in the House of Commons much more than what was common for backbenchers at the time. She was also often referred to as the First Lady of the Yukon. She stepped down in 1940 and her husband ran again successfully.
In territorial politics, it took until 1967 for a woman to be elected to the Territorial Council. That year, Jean Gordon, a Progressive Conservative representing the Mayo district, was elected. At that time, the Territorial Council was an advisory body to the Commissioner who ran the territory. Gordon was known for her bluntness and sense of humour. She had been a placer miner before making the switch to politics after members of her community asked her to run. She was defeated in the 1970 election where she proclaimed, “You can’t beat a campaign of booze and bullshit.”
According to Floyd McCormick, the clerk of the Legislative Assembly, “On November 29, 1970 Hilda Watson became the first woman to be appointed to ‘cabinet.’ Mrs. Watson (the member of the territorial council for Carmacks-Kluane) was appointed to the executive committee that had been formed on the instructions of Hon. Jean Chretien, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The executive committee was an executive body made up of the Commissioner, two assistant commissioners and two elected members of the territorial council – Mrs. Watson and Norm Chamberlist being the first two appointed. Mrs. Watson was given portfolio responsibility for the Department of Education.”
The 1970s brought great changes for women in politics. As Hayden writes in her book Yukon’s women of power, “Because of feminist lobbying, labour laws were changed to allow women to work in non-traditional jobs including Yukon mines. Child care centres were set up, with some support from the Yukon government; post-secondary education courses came to the Yukon, and life in general became easier for women and their families. All in all, those early activist women of the 1970s changed the territory from a male-dominated, male-oriented community to one that fostered healthy diversity and family life.”
Despite progress being made, it wasn’t always easy being a woman in politics says Eleanor Millard. She was a member of the Yukon Territorial Council from 1974 to 1978. She was a member of the NDP although party politics were not officially in the territory. “I quit the NDP at the time because of one of the members who was really pretty mean to me as a woman. He said I should be home having babies and I should close that hole under my nose.”
You had, and still have to work twice as hard as a man she says.
The Territorial Council gained more power and was renamed the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 1978 when party politics made their official appearance in the territory.
In this first partisan election, Watson, a PC, became the first woman to lead a political party in the Yukon, and the first woman to lead a mainstream political party in Canada. She was also the first woman to lead a party successful in having its members elected but she failed to win her riding, losing her seat to Liberal Alice McGuire and so never became government leader.
“Alas, I didn’t win mine. There was just too much dirty laundry in the race and it was able to air itself out (…)” Watson said of her loss.
In federal politics, Erik Nielson, the PC Member of Parliament for the Yukon retired in 1987 after 29 years in the House of Commons. Audrey McLaughlin was elected as the New Democratic Party MP. In 1989, she was elected as the national NDP leader, becoming the first woman in Canadian history to lead a national party.
She coined the phrase “from sea to sea to sea” to bring a greater definition of Canada and the inclusion of the North. She was also known for her feminist views. Hayden quotes McLaughlin in her book as saying, “I make no apology for being a feminist and I think it’s time we took back the language. When people say to me ‘I’d like to talk about women’s issues,’ I reply that every issue is a woman’s issue. How can the environment, defence, the economy and peace not be women’s issues?”
She resigned as leader in 1993 and left politics in 1995.
In 2000, Liberal Pat Duncan was elected as Yukon Premier, becoming the first woman in the Yukon to be elected Premier. She also became the second woman in Canadian history to be voted in as Premier through a general election and was also the first woman to win an election where all the competing parties were led by men. It took a bit of time for the media to realize that a woman had been elected to such a high-standing position in politics, as The Globe and Mail kept announcing “Mr. Duncan’s” victory. This may also serve to show, however, the disconnection between Canada and Yukon politics.
That same year, five out of the six major political positions in the territory were held by women with Pat Duncan as Premier, Kathy Watson as the mayor of Whitehorse, Louise Hardy as the NDP MP, Ione Christensen as the Yukon senator and Judy Gingell as the Yukon Commissioner.
While Premier, half of Duncan’s cabinet were women, with Duncan, Sue Edelman, Pam Buckway and Cynthia Tucker all holding ministerial portfolios. McCormick and political science professor Graham White believe this is the only time in Canadian history this has happened.
While Premier, Duncan also pushed for non-sexist language to be adopted and sought to get rid of sexist expressions like “rule of thumb” and succeeded.
After almost consistently hovering around the 20 to 25 per cent mark, electoral percentages for women in the 2000s stepped backwards, dropping to 17 per cent, and eventually 11 per cent.
In 2006, three women from three different parties tabled a motion to change the hours of the legislature from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. to 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to make them more family-friendly. This move was both criticized and praised but highlights another change the Yukon made to make politics more hospitable for women.
“For us, it’s not about a reduction of hours, it’s about responding to our obligations not only as representatives but as family members as well. So if you want to continue to make the Legislative Assembly an attractive place for us to work, all of us to work, and make it more representative,”said Elaine Taylor, one of the MLAs involved in the motion.
Those hours still stand today.
The percentage of women in politics dramatically bounced back in the October 2011 election where women were elected to 31.6 per cent of the seats.
“It’s the highest percentage we’ve seen in the Yukon,” says McCormick.
In that same election, women were elected to 67 per cent of the NDP caucus. The party became the first group with official party status in Canada to go over the 50 per cent mark.
It’s also important to note the contribution of First Nations women in Yukon politics. Alice McGuire, a member of Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, was the first First Nation woman to be elected to the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 1978. Since then there has been at least one First Nation woman in the Yukon Legislative Assembly except for 1996 to 2000 where there were none. Since 1978, First Nations women have occupied roughly 30 per cent of women’s seats. First Nations people represent about 25 per cent of the Yukon population.
In 1985, First Nations women made up two out of the three seats occupied by women in the legislature and in 1989 they represented half the seats. Other than those two electoral periods however, First Nations women have only held one seat in all other elections indicating work needs to be done to ensure a proper representation of the population. As Lois Moorcroft, the NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly for Copperbelt South, says, “we still need balance for women and First Nations women.”
Seven different First Nations women have sat in the Yukon Legislative Assembly (there have been 23 different women total), including NDP MLA, Margaret Commodore (of the Stolo First Nation in British Columbia), who in 1985 became the first First Nation woman to be named cabinet minister. Commodore and PC MLA Bea Firth were the longest-serving women in the Yukon legislature, having both been elected from 1982 to 1996.
First Nations women have also occupied other high-ranking political positions in the territory. Two out of the three women Commissioners (the territory’s equivalent to a lieutenant general) have been First Nations – Judy Gingell of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation from 1995 to 2000 and Geraldine Van Bibber, of Gwich’in ancestry from 2005 to 2010.
Many women are also involved in First Nations politics. In the Yukon 11 out of the 14 First Nations have self-government agreements in place and there have been a number of female chiefs over the years. In 2013, there are two female chiefs – Chief Math’ieya Alatini of the Kluane First Nation and Chief Brenda Sam of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council. Twelve of the Yukon First Nations are members of the Council of Yukon First Nations. The organization is headed by Grand Chief Ruth Massie, a former chief of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, who was originally elected for a three-year term in 2010 and was elected to another term in June of 2013.
Since the Yukon’s inception women have played an important role in shaping the territory into what it is today and making the legislature a more attractive place for women.
The timeline below highlights the history and achievements of Yukon women at the territorial and federal level. View it as it is or as a Flipbook. By clicking the + signs, more events will appear.