Before entering politics, Senator Pat Duncan worked in small business and served as the executive director of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce. Elected to the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 1996, she served as Leader of the Official Opposition before serving as Yukon’s first female premier from 2000 to 2002

Senator Duncan has been recognized for her public service with awards such as the Commemorative medal for the 125th anniversary of Confederation of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. She has served on the Senate Committee on National Finance as well as the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce.

Senator Duncan was appointed to the Senate on December 12, 2018.

Who inspired you to get involved in public life?

I worked in Ottawa for Yukon MP Erik Nielsen when he was deputy prime minister in 1984. Public life is what I did and who I was. I certainly was influenced by working for Erik. When I worked for him, if it had anything to do with the Yukon, it came to my desk, regardless of the fact that he was the deputy prime minister. He signed every letter personally and that’s something that I do as well. I love that people-oriented approach. I still to this day believe that if a letter is going out with my signature on it, I have to have seen it. Staff who worked with me when I was elected will tell you that they hated that red pen because I would go through and write and rewrite letters.

Tell me something about yourself that most Canadians might not know.

Most people don’t know that in high school I worked for CBC Radio. For several years, I was the sportscaster. One of the highlights of this job was an interview I did with Clarence Campbell the day he retired as president of the National Hockey League (NHL). I learned the skills of an announcer and a little bit about music doing live programming that aired throughout the Yukon and parts of the Northwest Territories late on Friday and Saturday evenings. Part of a lifelong appreciation and love of CBC Radio.

What do you think are the biggest public policy issues that are facing Canada today?

I think that there is a real appetite throughout Canada for development of a Guaranteed Livable Income or Universal Basic Income. The challenge related to the COVID-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity for dynamic change and development of public policy. I have become better acquainted and truly appreciate the advice of former senator Hugh Segal, who has advocated for basic income in Canada for years.

The opportunity for change in the challenging times of the pandemic rests not only with social policy; there is also opportunity and tremendous challenge with our economy. Oil and gas specifically are seeing a sea change in the industry. Among other ideas, we can revisit the questions surrounding nationally accessing energy in an east-west dynamic.

Senator Pat Duncan by the Yukon River after announcing her retirement from the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 2006. (Photo credit: Yukon News)

Why should more Canadians care about what goes on in the Senate?

One of the most common reactions I get from people both young and old since my appointment to the Senate has been, “Congratulations! Tell me again, what does the Senate do exactly?”

I usually start by reminding folks of their understanding from high school, that senators review, amend and offer constructive improvement to legislation. We offer that “sober second thought” to the work of the House of Commons. I then share elements of the work of Senate committees. Senate reports can spark debate, provide research and be the catalyst for change. An example, the 2018 report of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, Driving Change: Technology and the Future of the Automated Vehicle, offered valuable insight when we were reviewing the budget rebate for the purchase of electric cars. I have shared that report with many Yukoners.

Being the Yukon senator among colleagues with diverse political views from many different cultures and backgrounds during this period of modernization and change in the Senate is especially fascinating.  I love to talk about my work and I welcome hearing from Canadians.

What legislative effort or committee work are you most proud to have been involved in?

Two things immediately come to mind. The first is the report from the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, Open Banking: What it Means to You. It was amazing to participate in that study, knowing what an immediate issue this is for Canadians that we generally overlook. For example, screen scraping and protecting our personal privacy and information and how open banking can be used to reach the most vulnerable in our communities. It presents an incredible opportunity for Canadians to get to know each other and to be leaders and to adopt some of the best practices elsewhere in the world. I’m really proud of the report we did.

In Northern Canada, the premier is most often also the Minister of Finance. Having worked for Erik Nielsen when the Territorial Formula Finance Funding Arrangement came into effect in 1985 and having served as the Yukon’s premier and finance minister, a seat on the Senate Committee on National Finance was a natural fit for me. In December 2019, when we examined the supplementary estimates, the Senate committee spent seven hours looking at those estimates, whereas the House of Commons went through it in about 20 minutes. I’m proud of the scrutiny we give to government expenditures in the national finance committee.

What is a hidden gem in your region that more Canadians need to know about?

One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve been given is to see your own country first. I would love to see Canadians have an affordable opportunity to travel to coast to coast to coast.

I find walking does wonders for my mental health. It is hard to pick just one favourite walk in Whitehorse or in the Yukon. I often walk in the Gunnar Nilsson and Mickey Lammers Research Forest, a beautiful, 248-hectare greenspace near Whitehorse that is filled with hiking and biking trails.

Senator Duncan on a hike near the Keno and Elsa communities in the Yukon in August 2020.

Can you name a guilty pleasure song that always makes you smile?

My guilty pleasure is Saturday night I love to tune in to Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio. It is an especially guilty pleasure if I am quilting while I listen and anything I am supposed to be doing is put on hold for a couple of hours.

What was the last book you read or movie that you saw that you recommended to someone?

Lawrence Hill, who has also travelled to the Yukon, is a writer I have especially enjoyed. I read The Illegal first and then read The Book of Negroes. I have also most recently recommended The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.

Senator Pat Duncan on a hike to Spirit Canyon near Whitehorse, one of her favourite spots in the Yukon.

The last movie I recommended was an animated movie called Balto. It tells the story of a sled dog saving lives by delivering medical treatments for diphtheria to an Alaskan community after bad weather prevented planes from delivering the aid. The Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska commemorates this famous Alaskan story.

What sports teams do you follow?

I grew up with my dad watching Hockey Night in Canada. I married a Colorado Avalanche fan, so I follow them as well. I curled in juniors and at the Canada Winter Games in 1979 so, of course, I watch the Scotties and the Brier every year. Our children were competitive swimmers and our son played Notre Dame Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan so the SJHL has a place in my heart as well. We have made so many good lifelong friends through sports.​

Senator Pat Duncan at age 18 curls for the Yukon team at the Canada Winter Games in Brandon, Manitoba in 1979. “I curled competitively from about eight years old until I was 24,” said Senator Duncan. “I still love the sport and have occasionally curled since then.”

(Photo credit: Andrew Hume)

Senator Pat Duncan’s family are big hockey fans and she is now a Colorado Avalanche fan herself thanks to her husband.

Why are you proud to be Canadian?

I’m the only born Canadian in my family. My mom would often say, “This is the last of the lot and the only Canadian!” My mother was from Maine, my father from Glasgow and all my siblings were born in air force stations all over the U.K.

I’m so proud of what Canada is. Canada welcomed my family with open arms. I’m proud of our health-care system and that we have an open-arms immigration system. I’m so proud as a Yukoner of our relationship with First Nations in the region and reaching land claims agreements. I loved that part about being premier — every Friday afternoon I would sit down with the land claims negotiating staff and we’d go through the work being done, claim by claim, in the Yukon. I’m proud of the work we continue to do as a country.

Senator Pat Duncan meets with a group of Girl Guides in the Senate Chamber on May 1, 2019. Senator Duncan spoke about the role of the Senate and her own journey to becoming a senator as part of a SENgage youth-outreach event.

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