High Hopes Silver
Sandy Silver’s “Survivor” photo—plastered onto a weathered Liberal campaign sign—hangs akimbo on the door of his corner office in the Yukon Legislature. In it, the territory’s new premier grins under tousled hair and a few days of stubble, his tan shirt unbuttoned at the collar.
When the high-school math teacher sent in the rugged photo, more than five years ago, Liberal strategists told him he “looked stoned.” Silver laughed, but didn’t back down. “I’m not stoned,” he said. “That’s the picture.”
Silver wears his salt-and-pepper hair shorter now, trims his beard, and sports a suit most days, but underneath, the man in the photo and the man now premier remains much the same.
“I’m not concerned about me changing who I am,” says Silver, on the phone from Ottawa. “I’m concerned about the opportunities being fewer and farther between, of being that person, because I’m so busy.”
His first week in office, Silver flew to Ottawa to chair the First Minister’s meeting with Canada’s premiers, a responsibility he didn’t know he had until he opened the three-inch briefing binder on his desk and noticed he was chair.
The meeting didn’t go as planned.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave opening statements; keynote speaker US vice-president Joe Biden followed. Silver was next. After opening remarks, he was supposed to open the floor to debate.
Instead, Silver passed the torch to AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who gave him a grin. They’d met the night before, after Silver gave away his ticket for the star-studded Biden banquet to join more than 100 chiefs at an Assembly of First Nations dinner instead.
He was the only premier there.
“Next day, at the First Minister’s meeting, we were at the table and the national indigenous leaders had no opportunity for opening statements,” says Silver. “It was stupid.” After Silver invited Bellegarde to speak, Trudeau had no choice but to invite the Métis leader and the Inuit leader to speak, as well. “It’s small little things to try and push the envelope,” says Silver.
The small little things define him. Days after being elected, Silver volunteered to cook donairs at a Whitehorse high school’s world food day. “There was no entourage, no cameras, nothing was being tweeted or posted to Facebook,” says longtime friend and fellow teacher Paul MacDonald. “The premier-elect was just there flipping donairs, talking with students.”
Silver has never been a flashy frontman. Growing up in Antigonish, N.S, he played the drums, driving the family dry-cleaning van to gigs. His siblings went into medicine, becoming accomplished neurosurgeons, doctors and radiologists. Silver, fresh out of teacher’s college, went North.
MacDonald and Silver drove across the country in an army green Mercury Sable station wagon, badly in need of a coat of paint. They landed in Whitehorse in 1996, and picked up work as substitute teachers. Permanent jobs in the Yukon capital were hard to come by, and Silver ended up heading further north to teach math in Dawson City. He never left.
There’s a bar in Dawson, known as “the Pit,” where the rafters aren’t parallel with the floor, the colour of the carpet is anyone’s best guess, and the oil paintings on the wall reflect the raunch in the room. Silver became a fixture here, behind the kit, holding it down for the house band. He ran sound for Dawson’s summer music festival, volunteered with the fire department, coached high school sports, and helped the local First Nation to archive elders’ stories.
“Silver is one of those guys you see everywhere and think, ‘Man, I wish he would run for office,’” says deputy premier and former Liberal Party president Ranj Pillai, who went to high school with Silver in the Maritimes and reconnected with him in the North. One evening over beer, when Silver started complaining about political decisions impacting education, Pillai took a chance and suggested Silver throw his hat in for the Liberals in the 2011 territorial election. It was bad timing.
The Liberals bombed, plunging from official opposition status to just two seats. Silver, with his “Survivor” photo, won one of them. His office was in the bowels of the legislature, a dim '70s-era basement that grew even darker six months in, when the other Liberal MLA left to sit as an independent, leaving Silver the sole survivor.
“I’m usually a pretty upbeat guy,” says Silver. “But those were hard times, I had to do some soul searching.” In his funk, Silver ran into a constituent on the street in Dawson. “We didn’t vote for the party,” she said. “We voted for you, so stick to your guns.” His campaign team was more blunt. “Snap to it,” they told him. “Do your job.”
Silver did the job differently. “It got very grassroots,” says MacDonald, who joined the Liberal executive to support his friend’s bid for the leadership. Silver talked to everyone. What he heard became party policy, and “Be Heard” became the Liberal mantra. MacDonald remembers watching Silver talk with a young man from Old Crow during a function. “He was having some problems, and Sandy just gave him his phone number,” he says. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
“Respect and dialogue, that’s the whole point of a political party,” says Silver, who refused to push the Liberals right or left, and ran a clean campaign. “You can have left and right inside together with respectful dialogue—that’s the model people want, and it worked.”
Silver, and his sundry troupe of lawyers, city councillors, a news editor, a chief, and a cowboy, swept from one seat to a majority in October’s territorial election, unseating the conservative Yukon Party, which had held power since before Facebook and the iPhone. The Liberals campaigned on change, promising to mend frayed relations with Yukon First Nations, to focus on the communities as well as the capital, improve health care, social services and education, and court development without compromising the environment.
Now, they’re cramming. With names taped haphazardly to new office doors, and art still leaning against desks, Silver’s raft of inexperienced MLAs are buried in briefing binders. It’s late on a Friday, and the airy Liberal headquarters feels like the staging ground before the start of a friendly offensive. Pillai is there talking shop with the new Highways and Public Works minister, executive assistants whir past, while Silver’s straight-shooting, silver-haired chief of staff, David Morrison—who came out retirement to take the job—pours over policy.
It may sound cheesy, says Morrison, “but we want to see if we can build something.” He can’t say exactly what. Not yet. “First we have to get everyone in the room and exhaust our options,” he says. “We may be dreaming, but we want to try.”
Silver doesn’t get much time to dream these days. He barely has time to sleep. And he definitely doesn’t have time to wail on the drums. He’s too busy talking with everyone, from Yukoners in grocery stores, to chiefs and municipal councils, to the legislative pages, who need help with their math homework.