Hougen Group

The Epp Letter

The long and winding road toward greater political control for elected politicians in the Yukon was often battered by storm clouds. Since the first wholly elected council back in 1909, Yukoner politicians had been demanding more political clout. But the demands always fell on deaf ears in Ottawa and the Yukon’s federally appointed Commissioner continued to run the day-to-day affairs of the Territory. The commish was the boss, the elected councillors mere window dressing.

But that changed in May of 1979 when the federal election brought in the short-lived government of Joe Clark. Jake Epp, a Mennonite from Manitoba, was appointed Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and became the defacto political boss of the Yukon. But there was no doubt that the real power now lay in the hands of the Yukon’s member of Parliament Erik Nielsen, who was also appointed to the Clark cabinet. Nielsen had long advocated provincial status for the Yukon.

Things began to happen in a hurry and the role of Nielsen was not well hidden. In June of 1979, Yukon Government Leader Chris Pearson wrote to Epp outlining his government's position on responsible government for the territory. He demanded that the commissioner be removed from the executive committee, which ran the day–to-day political affairs of the Yukon. Epp agreed and the die was cast.

Yukon Commissioner Ione Christensen said that, while she did not oppose the changes, she did feel that they would be implemented far too fast. She hinted broadly that she might have to resign. On October 9th, 1979 Epp wrote the now famous Epp letter to Commissioner Christensen.

Epp told Christensen to remove herself from the policy-making process and not participate in day-to-day affairs of the Executive Council. Epp said as commissioner, she must to accept the advice of the Territorial Council in all matters of the Yukon Act which are delegated to the Commissioner.

Epp had fired the Commissioner and on that day, the commissioner became the Lieutenant Governor for the Yukon. But it would not be Christensen. She resigned. The Epp letter also authorized the Yukon government leader to refer to himself as "Premier" and to his cabinet members as "Ministers" if they so wished.

The changes brought the Yukon into line with provincial governments. Elected polticians were now responsible for the policies and expenditures of the Yukon government. The Yukon was fast becoming a province in all but name.