This past May (2011), when Dennis Fentie retired after fifteen years in politics, he was Yukon’s longest-serving premier. At the time, he was also the longest-serving premier in Canada. Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way! This maxim – burnt letters on a small wood sign – hung on then-premier Dennis Fentie’s office door during his nine-year tenure as head of the Government of Yukon. He says it was his constant reminder to act, not just talk. “It comes down to the one thing governments must do – make decisions. Governments tend to fall into the trap of endless conversation, and in that circular discourse, no decision ever gets made.”
Fentie’s aggressive leadership style was all about blazing a trail for progress and growth in Yukon. His legacy is evident in all aspects of Yukon’s economy and community, but nowhere more dramatically than in the mining sector.
When Fentie became premier in 2002, annual mineral exploration expenditures in Yukon were $7 million. That grew to $150 million by 2010 and in 2011 is expected to reach $256 million according to the Yukon government. The number of hard-rock mines in operation went from zero in 2002 to three in 2011 (Minto, Wolverine and Bellekeno). The value of mineral production grew 264 per cent from $78 million to $284 million in 2010 and is forecast to expand 97 per cent to $560 million in 2011.
These gains are the result of a combination of outside factors and the decisions made by Fentie and his government. “In 2002,” Fentie says, “The main challenge facing exploration and mining was to rid the Yukon of unnecessary and detrimental policies towards mining and exploration, specifically the Protected Areas Strategy. With most First Nation land claims coming to completion, it was a policy that was not needed.”
Another challenge was to instill confidence in the investment community. “We had lost that over time,” he recalls. “It was evident in the amount of investment the Yukon was receiving. We have a treasure trove of resources in this territory so the lack of confidence was something we had to address.”
On the political side, Fentie says, “We had to create partnerships with First Nations to get them more involved in the mining sector.” He cites the Minto Mine as an example of how a First Nation is now directly involved in an operating mine that is on their settlement land.
An outside contributing factor was devolution. In April 2003, the Yukon Government took over control of lands, water and resources in Yukon from the federal government. “By implementing devolution, we became the decision makers.”
On top of all these factors, Fentie attributes mining’s dramatic turn-around to “the ongoing efforts to aggressively pursue the mining sector to bring it back to the Yukon.” He says with pride, “Today, the Yukon is one of the frontrunners in the mining sector in the whole world. We’ve matured; we are more in control of our destiny; we are masters in our own house.”
Fentie has a long association with the mining industry. His mother, whose nickname was Mary Minerals, brought her son to Yukon in the early 60s, and took up exploration and later mining. She had gold claims, mined jade and made jewellery out of jade. Fentie says, “She constantly wanted to learn more about why things are the way they are out there geologically.” It was a remarkable achievement for a woman in a man’s world. Fentie took a page from her book.
When asked what his single greatest achievement was, he says there is not one that stands out. “We stimulated the territory, not just economically but in attitude, in attractiveness and competitiveness. We were very progressive on the environmental side and on the social side of the ledger. We took some very bold and difficult steps in correctional reform and educational reform.” But two achievements he points to are “the dramatic change in fortune in the mining sector and putting the Yukon’s fiscal house in order. Last spring, the Yukon was the first jurisdiction in Canada to table a balanced budget.”
After leading the Yukon Party from 2002 to 2011, Dennis Fentie has decided to ‘get out of the way.’ Newly retired, he’s not going to make any quick decisions about his future. For him, politics was a life choice – all consuming.
Eventually, he may choose another career or he may choose retirement. But he says, “The first step is to change the pace and let the residual all drain away. Then – with clarity of mind – we’ll see what’s there. I’m certainly not anxious to make any moves.”
That change of pace begins with a trip on his Harley Davidson to visit family in B.C. and Alberta. He chuckles, “Lorraine (his partner) and I have six grandchildren and a seventh on the way – so there’s lots to fill the time here.”
This profile was published in the Association of Mineral and Exploration British Columbia, Volume 2 Fall 2011