Yukonomist: The relentless mathematics of Whitehorse


In 1956, shortly after the territory's capital was moved upriver from Dawson to Whitehorse, the new capital had a population of 2,570, 21 percent of the territory's total population of 12,190. 9,620 Yukoners lived in other communities.

Fast forward to the 2021 census: The number of Yukoners living in other communities increased by 2,411 people. Whitehorse's population increased by 25,631 people, ten times as much.

Today, 70 percent of Yukon's population lives in Whitehorse.

That's actually an understatement. Statistics Canada has a concept called the “Whitehorse Census Agglomeration.” In 2021, this included 3,712 agglomerates living just outside the city limits in places like MacPherson, Marsh Lake, Ibex Valley and Mount Lorne.

If the agglomerations are included, 8,319 Yukoners remain outside the Whitehorse blob and 79 percent of Yukoners remain in the Whitehorse agglomeration.

In 1956, the agglomeration was not counted, but we can assume that the populations of Marsh Lake, Mount Lorne and Ibex Valley were quite small. This suggests the possibility that the population outside the agglomeration is actually lower today than it was in 1956.

Which brings us to democracy.

The Yukon Electoral Boundaries Commission for 2024 released its interim report on May 10. The boundaries of our electoral districts have not changed since 2008.

Whitehorse's mathematics is the big problem, and the commission has illustrated this with some stark numbers.

If you divide the 31,655 electors in Yukon by 19 constituencies, you get 1,666 per constituency.

According to the commission, Canadian courts generally consider deviations of up to 25 percent up or down to be acceptable before they constitute a violation of civil liberties.

Eleven of the current 19 constituencies violate this legal rule of thumb, a larger proportion than anywhere else in Canada.

Five constituencies outside Whitehorse are overrepresented with fewer voters per MLA, while five constituencies within Whitehorse are underrepresented. The number of voters per MLA ranges from 2,951 in Porter Creek Centre to 188 in Old Crow.

The name of the moose in the room is Whistle Bend. Since the last redrawing of the map in 2008, the commission estimates that 4,000 people have moved to Whistle Bend, most of them eligible to vote. By 2030, that number could rise to 8,000 to 10,000 people. That would give Whistle Bend alone about the same population as all the communities outside of Whitehorse combined.

If the map remained unchanged, all of these people would elect an MLA (along with the other voters in Porter Creek Centre). The 188 electors in Old Crow would have equal representation in the legislature.

The Commission's proposal would reduce the number of constituencies outside Whitehorse from eight to six and increase the number of Whitehorse constituencies from eleven to thirteen. This would mean merging the Old Crow constituency with Dawson. Note also that two of the six “rural” constituencies would include thousands of agglomerates in Marsh Lake, Mount Lorne and the northern edge of the capital.

This will not please Yukoners living outside of Whitehorse, who rarely feel that the capital needs to have even more influence in the administration of the territory. Old Crow will be a small part of a much larger constituency, just as communities like Destruction Bay and Burwash Landing are today.

The math limits the options if you want to limit the number of MLAs to 19 and adhere to judicial guidelines on representative fairness.

There are other options, but they exceed the limits of political credibility.

One could add a Yukon Senate, with 19 representatives elected by population in the lower house and each municipality with an elected senator in the upper house, as the Americans and Australians do (the Senate in Canada is unelected; the composition of the Senate in Alaska is tied to population rather than the geographically based model used by the US and Australia).

Another option is to halve MPs' salaries, double the number of seats and spread them out. They would be part-timers like they used to be (and councillors still are) and there would be more people for the prime minister to choose from to form his full-time cabinet.

Old Crow would still be overrepresented, but only half as strong.

The commission will release its final report after a series of public meetings in October. It will then be up to the current Yukon Legislature to decide what to do with the commission's findings before the next territorial election.

In the meantime, people will continue to move to Whitehorse in general and Whistle Bend in particular. The city's official zoning plan includes new areas in case Whistle Bend fills up, with up to 8,500 housing units south of Copper Ridge and around Long Lake. If other communities in the Yukon fail to attract people faster than the capital, that will make Whitehorse's numbers even more compelling, whether you like it or not. The thousands of people moving into these residential areas will want a say in Parliament.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and winner of the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist. His latest book, Moonshadows, a Yukon noir thriller, is available in bookstores across the Yukon.