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No northerners in cabinet, no problem for veteran Yukon MP

By Chelsea Nash      

Former PM Paul Martin says he's 'never' thought of Mr. Bagnell as a backbencher, and that he would make a 'tremendous minister.'

‘I’m sure when ministers see Larry coming, they know he’s got an ask,’ says one colleague. Photograph courtesy of Larry Bagnell
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Liberal MP Larry Bagnell was once invited to speak at a high school graduation in his riding, as most MPs are. However, for most MPs the journey to a high school in their riding would not consist of flying in a small plane, being grounded due to fog, and hitchhiking the rest of the way there.

“It was visual flight rules,” he recounts, meaning the plane was being flown by the pilot’s sight, not relying on the instruments in the cockpit. “Clouds all moved in, it was a rainy day. So we tried to go down and follow the highway in the plane, and we couldn’t, [because] that fogged in.”

The plane had to turn back, and although it had fogged in behind them, too, the pilot eventually found a small airport to land at. Most MPs—most people, really—would likely call it quits at this point, and with no other means of transportation available, call the high school to cancel. Not Mr. Bagnell.

“I had to walk in the rain in my suit,” the 67 year-old said. He bought a raincoat at the nearest store, “then I hitchhiked in a big transport truck, and I got to the speech in time.”

Mr. Bagnell said he had missed the ceremony, when he was supposed to speak, but delivered his remarks to the graduating class—soaking wet—at the banquet that followed. It was still foggy when it was time for him to return, so he took a Greyhound bus back to his home in Whitehorse.

“His dedication to his vocation as a political figure from the North is one he has taken very seriously,” said former prime minister Paul Martin, who has been a friend of Mr. Bagnell for close to 20 years.

Mr. Bagnell’s two young children are even named after the region of Canada he loves so dearly. He has a five-year-old boy named Dawson, and an eight-year-old girl named Aurora. Dawson City is a town in the Yukon linked to the Klondike gold rush, and Aurora Borealis is the scientific name for the Northern Lights.

Mr. Bagnell with his daughter, Aurora, in 2015. The MP became a father at age 58. Photo courtesy of Larry Bagnell

Canada’s third coast not represented in cabinet

With Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) latest cabinet shuffle, a noticeable gap was left in terms of regional representation: no minister on his team hails from Canada’s third coast, the North.

Mr. Martin said there’s “no doubt” in his mind Mr. Bagnell would make “a tremendous minister.”

“I’ve never thought of Larry Bagnell as a backbencher. I think what he has done is demonstrate that if you’re a dedicated Member of Parliament, you’ll have a huge influence,” he said.

Former Yukon MP, Conservative Ryan Leef, told a local Whitehorse radio station The Rush that he is disappointed that no northerners were included on the updated cabinet roster, particularly given Mr. Bagnell’s 10-plus years of experience.

In Mr. Trudeau’s initial cabinet in 2015, Hunter Tootoo was included as minister of fisheries and oceans, representing Nunavut. Over the summer, Mr. Tootoo resigned from cabinet, and from the Liberal caucus entirely, citing alcohol addiction as his reasoning. Since then, there has been no one to replace him.

“We’ve been left out of cabinet,” Mr. Leef is quoted as saying. “I think the shuffle would have been a great opportunity to reflect on some of the experience that he’s [Bagnell] done with cabinet.”

Mr. Leef was also critical of Mr. Trudeau for not having visited the North since he was elected.

But Mr. Bagnell, who has been said to tirelessly advocate for the North as an opposition and government MP, says it’s not a problem for him. He also defended Mr. Trudeau’s absence in the first year of his government, pointing out the fact that the then-Liberal leader spent almost a week in the Yukon, before being elected PM, at the 2013 annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.

“He spent more [time] in my riding than any other riding in the country. He’s well familiar,” he said.

Mr. Bagnell says what matters most to him is that the prime minister delivers on his promises to the North. He said so far, he’s been thrilled.

“I couldn’t get everything into my 10-minute budget speech,” Mr. Bagnell said, citing an increase to the tax break that was awarded to the North, called the “Northern residents deductions,” as something he personally lobbied to have included in Budget 2016.

Mr. Bagnell said that when it comes down to it, the change in strategy for the North was most important.

“Our strategy is based on the people of the North. Whereas in the past, there was more focus on military, defence, and resource extraction,” he said.

In a later email exchange, he said “Liberal ministers and [the] PM are very receptive and empathetic [regarding] northern issues.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t work hard to lobby them, though.

“I’m sure when ministers see Larry coming, they know he’s got an ask,” said Liberal MP Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.).

Minister Carolyn Bennett with Mr. Bagnell after having introduced Bill C-17, which would amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, to the House. Photo courtesy of Larry Bagnell

Mr. Bagnell is the most experienced Member of Parliament in the northern caucus by a long shot, having been in office for a collective 12 years. He won his first election in 2000, and stayed in until losing narrowly in 2011 to Mr. Leef. Undeterred, he ran once more in 2015 and won back his riding with a solid 53.6 per cent of the vote.

Two of his colleagues, Liberal MP Michael McLeod (Northwest Territories) and Mr. Tootoo (Nunavut), were both elected in 2015. Yvonne Jones (Labrador, N.L.), who is the only northern MP with a government role as the parliamentary secretary for indigenous and northern affairs, won her riding in a byelection in 2013, and held onto it in 2015.

The northern caucus meets every Monday at noon, Mr. Bagnell says, and anyone who’s interested is welcome to attend. “We have a lot of northern issues we then go out to lobby our colleagues on.”

“A Member of Parliament like Larry who has the capacity to speak to the North with such passion will have a huge influence,” Mr. Martin said. “That understanding isn’t easily come by, you have to work hard for it.”

In 2016, as proof of that dedication, Mr. Bagnell won the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year award for being the best constituency MP. The award was won through a vote by his peers.

This comes as no surprise to Mr. Oliphant, who has known Mr. Bagnell since 1993, when he moved to the Yukon to be a United Church minister.

“Larry has been successful when we’ve been in government and when we’ve been in opposition. He’s respected in all parties,” he said.

Canada’s third coast can often slip under the radar when politicians are considering national priorities. It’s far away from the majority of the population, but the problems that plague Canada’s northern regions—climate change, food insecurity, a lack of education in First Nations communities—have been consistent over the years.

Mr. Bagnell said one of the priorities of the northern caucus is “to make sure that we’re included, we’re consulted and included in all the national plans to make sure the uniqueness of the North is taken into account,” which he said includes the “fragile ecological systems.”

“For instance there’s no way of cleaning up oil in ice-filled waters. We want those type of unique things [considered] in the North, and consultations with the aboriginal people of the North.”  

‘Ruffled shirt, hair flying, but he’s always on the go’

In addition to his advocacy, his constituency work, and his long hours travelling to and from his riding, Mr. Bagnell is also responsible for chairing the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC), and participates as vice-chair on the Standing Committee of Arctic Parliamentarians.

The latter is an international committee, with members hailing from all the Arctic nations. Last fall, Mr. Bagnell hosted a conference with them all in Ottawa. On the agenda right now is the fight against black carbon: carbon that has been trapped in northern ice for years, but as a result of climate change, is slowly being released into the atmosphere.

Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.), who is a vice-chair on PROC, said Mr. Bagnell has been very easy to work with. He described Mr. Bagnell’s leadership style as “folksy.”

“He’s a person that’s very down to earth. I think his leadership style reflects that,” he said.

Mr. Bagnell holds a bunny while visiting the Dawson City Farmers Market in his riding. Photo courtesy of Larry Bagnell

“With Larry, what you see is what you get. Ruffled shirt, hair flying, but he’s always on the go,” said Mr. Oliphant.

Mr. Bagnell is married to Melissa Craig, who proposed to him in 2005. Even then, as the Whitehorse Daily Star reported at the time, Mr. Bagnell was hard to nail down for five minutes of alone time so she could pop the question.

He’s so busy, in fact, The Beaverton, a Canadian satirical news website, wrote an article titled, “Meet the 12 Clones that fill in for Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.”

Mr. Oliphant said Mr. Bagnell’s biggest fault is not taking enough time for himself. “Larry,” as all of his friends and colleagues call him, gets up early in the morning, and works into the wee hours of the night.

Mr. Bagnell might agree with him. “The hardest thing is leaving my children every Sunday,” he said. When the House is sitting, Mr. Bagnell manages to make it home every weekend. By the time he journeys there, it’s almost time to return to Ottawa. He typically leaves Ottawa on Thursday or Friday afternoon, and gets home to Whitehorse between 2 and 3 a.m. He spends Saturday in his riding, and on Sunday, it’s time to make the trip back again.  

Mr. Bagnell’s regular 28-hour journey to and from his riding, he says, gives him time to reflect. “One of the things that Larry does, is he not only acts, but he takes the time to think. When that airplane door shuts, he has time to think about the people he’s working for,” Mr. Oliphant said.

cnash@hilltimes.com

How Larry Bagnell lobbies ministers

According to Mr. Bagnell, “you only need to remind them” of a few things. He lists them here:

  • We have to survive under the harshest conditions
  • A $4 jug of milk might cost $20, but wages or welfare aren’t higher
  • We have a tiny tax base that does nothing near enough to provide us services commensurate with other Canadians, as guaranteed in the Constitution
  • We have huge distances of scattered populations to provide services to; each northern MP covers an area larger than European nations
  • Being the furthest jurisdictions from Ottawa, we will feel alienated if not listened to
  • We can have from two to six Inuit families living in what we take for granted as a single-family dwelling in the South
  • We have harsh environmental and permafrost conditions in the Arctic, meaning it costs a lot more to heat a house or internationally competitive business at 40-below
  • We are a huge distance from markets, raw materials, skilled workforces, and major hospitals
  • Unlike the rest of the country, we have no ports or ability to lay internet cable to much of the region
  • If a national program were delivered on a per capita basis, we would get almost nothing, because of our tiny population

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