Workers have been getting injured on the job for as long as there has been work for them to do. The idea that injured workers are entitled to some form of compensation can be traced back to ancient times. The story of the Yukon workers’ compensation system begins much more recently, in the early 1900s.
The Klondike Gold Rush put Yukon on the world map, bringing tens of thousands of prospectors and other fortune seekers into Canada’s far northwest from all over the world and all walks of life. The economy exploded and jobs became plentiful. Labour unrest followed soon after, as conflicts between employers and workers emerged, over wages, working conditions and lack of workplace safety. The first workplace injuries and fatalities were being recorded.
Territorial politicians promised worker-rights measures, including compensation for injured workers, in their election platforms. The 1909 Speech from the Throne heralded workers’ compensation legislation, but it was not until eight years later, on April 24, 1917, that the Yukon Council enacted the first workers’ compensation law in the territory, An Ordinance Respecting Compensation to Workmen for Injuries Sustained in the Course of their Employment. The Ordinance made individual employers responsible for compensating workers for job-related injuries. It also established amounts to be paid for various workplace injuries, and for fatalities, through a schedule of payments.
Perhaps the four men who made up the Council were inspired by the work of Ontario judge William Meredith, who had released a report four years earlier laying out a set of principles that would eventually form the basis of worker’s compensation systems throughout Canada.
The Ordinance of 1917 came too late for the families of the six Pueblo Mine workers who had perished just one month earlier in a mine collapse near Whitehorse. It was there, however, for the dependents of 12 Yukon Gold Company workers who succumbed to food poisoning at the mess house on the Klondike’s Hunker Creek in May 1919. The widows of the married men received one-time settlements of $2,500 apiece. The sum was considered paltry even at the time, in light of the high cost of living in Dawson, but without the Ordinance the widows would have had to take the company to court, with little chance of any compensation at all.
Over time, improvements were made to the workers’ compensation system in Yukon. In 1938, for example, the temporary disability period—during which the employer was obliged to pay the injured worker 50 percent of their average daily wages—doubled from six months to one year. Further amendments a year later introduced the notion of “industrial disease,” defined as silicosis, lead poisoning, arsenic poisoning, mercury poisoning and infected blisters. An amendment in 1944 made dental work arising from a work injury compensable. A few years later the schedule of payments was adjusted. Loss of a thumb was now worth $1,000, loss of an eye $3,000, and loss of a leg $4,000.
These improvements notwithstanding, the workers’ compensation system was not seen to be keeping pace with the times. Calls were made during the 1940s for a system closer to that in effect in the provinces. The Yukon government resisted. In 1948 Commissioner J. E. Gibben emphasized the “difficulty involved in setting up machinery in this sparsely-populated area for the administration of workmen’s compensation legislation such as exists in the provinces.”
One idea gaining traction at the time was that employers should be required to take out insurance to ensure that funds would be available to compensate injured workers. Under the current self-insuring system, smaller enterprises might not have the resources to cover a large compensation payout. Injured workers could be left hanging, or the business could be bankrupted.
In January 1953 an overhauled workers’ compensation system came into effect. With 48 clauses and two schedules, the Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance went beyond what was envisioned 36 years earlier by the architects of the original Ordinance. Among other provisions of the new legislation, the requirement for employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance came into effect. The definition of “workman” was expanded, and injured workers were now entitled to medical benefits, including nursing care, hospitalization, medication and transportation to obtain such services. It became an offence for an employer not to report an accident. A “referee” could be appointed to “examine, inquire into, hear and determine, all matters and questions arising under this Ordinance.”
Up until now, the Yukon workers’ compensation system fell under the auspices of the federal government in Ottawa. In 1953 an office opened in Edmonton to manage workers’ compensation in Yukon and Northwest Territories. The system was being administered closer to home, but it was still fraught with delays, resulting in disgruntled claimants and frustrated employers. Demand for local administration was getting more insistent.
The number of claims was increasing, with new impairments such as hearing loss and additional occupational diseases becoming compensable. Further legislative amendments in the 1950s raised time-loss compensation to 75 percent of wages. A benefit for funeral expenses was added, along with a pension for widows of workers killed on the job and their dependent children. Prospecting and mineral exploration, which had been inexplicably omitted from previous ordinances, were added to the industries covered. Calls for a workers’ compensation office in Yukon grew louder in the 1960s. They would finally be answered in October 1970, when a Whitehorse office opened.
Ever since the requirement to carry insurance was mandated, there were concerns about the high cost of private insurance—employers complaining that they were being overcharged by the dozen or so companies offering coverage at the time. In 1963 the Yukon Legislature considered a motion calling for an outside study to determine the feasibility of financing workers’ compensation through the government rather than through private insurers.
A decade later, on July 31, 1973, a new Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance was passed, establishing a Compensation Fund to be administered by government. The Ordinance ushered in a new era in workers’ compensation in the territory. Liability was now the shared responsibility of all employers, rather than that of individual employers. Compensation was a no-fault system: benefits would be paid regardless of how a workplace injury or fatality occurred. In return, workers gave up the right to sue their employers—the “historic compromise” of workers’ compensation. The compensation system as we know it today had taken root in Yukon.
William Meredith had conceived of a workers’ compensation managed by a body independent of government. The first step in this direction was the establishment of a four-member Workmen’s Compensation Advisory Board in November 1976. With representatives from industry, labour and the public, it would function as the referee that had been provided for in the ordinance of 1952. In 1977 “Workmen” became “Workers” in the Board’s name to reflect more inclusive social attitudes and changing labour demographics.
The Yukon’s economy and population abruptly collapsed in 1982. A sudden drop in world metal prices, due to global economic recession, led to the closure of three mines and a corresponding decrease in injury claims. However, the liability for previous claims remained. To ride out the boom-bust scenarios inevitable in a resource-based economy, prudent decision making had ensured that the Board’s financial obligations to injured workers, and to the families of workers killed on the job, would always be fully funded. Employers who remained in business during the down times would be protected from having to shoulder the entire costs of the system. This fiduciary responsibility and the means to safeguard it remain in place today.
In 1983 further changes to the compensation system came into effect through amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act. The changes drew a distinction between impairment and disability in an effort to make the system fairer to both workers and employers. Rehabilitation services were enhanced, and benefits were increased to surviving spouses and dependent children of workers killed on the job. “Independent operators,” who did not fall within the scope of the system, could now purchase coverage from the Board. Claim review and adjudication processes were improved to make them more thorough and impartial.
The many improvements to workers’ compensation over the decades represented significant strides forward in the evolution of workers’ compensation in Yukon, but an essential piece of the workplace injury puzzle was still missing. It was not enough to support injured workers after the fact. It was equally or even more important to prevent them from getting injured in the first place.
A handful of mine safety ordinances had existed in the territory going back as far as 1901, but the first Occupational Health and Safety Act, which applied to all business enterprises, did not come into play until 1984. It was a comprehensive piece of legislation that laid out employers’ and workers’ safety responsibilities and rights, means of reporting and investigation of injuries and accidents, and an enforcement regime. The Act was accompanied by a set of regulations governing such matters as mine safety, occupational health, first aid, blasting and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). Over time these regulations would be expanded and enhanced to address new topics such as forest safety, commercial diving and radiation protection, and to specify and clarify training and certification requirements.
The Act was amended over the next several years in a continuing effort to make Yukon workplaces safer. In 1988, for instance, clearer requirements were introduced for the handling of hazardous materials. A 1989 amendment established that the Government of Yukon and all associated bodies were bound by the same occupational health and safety rules as the territory’s private-sector employers.
In December 1989 the Yukon government announced a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and the Workers’ Compensation Board to “identify and design Yukon-specific programs to reduce the risk of injury and disease to Yukon workers.” The initiative identified special areas of attention, including chemical exposure, indoor air quality, work-induced stress ailments and reproductive hazards for female workers. It called for workplace health promotion programs to increase public awareness—the beginning of social marketing efforts aimed at preventing on-the-job injuries.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act was opened in 1991, when the government announced significant increases in offences and penalties for contraventions of the Act, underscoring changing societal attitudes towards workplace safety lapses. The maximum fine for a first offence rose from $1,500 to $15,000, and the maximum possible jail term doubled from six months to twelve months. Jumping ahead 26 years and in response to a broadening understanding of workplace injury, further amendments to the Act in late 2017 provided for new regulations aimed at preventing psychological injuries at work.
In 1992 the occupational health and safety portfolio moved from the Department of Justice to the Workers’ Compensation Board, bringing compensation and prevention under one roof for the first time—and under their own roof, a separate building having been opened in downtown Whitehorse just three months earlier. To affirm the Board’s new double mandate, the name was changed to the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board.
Meanwhile, the workers’ compensation system had continued to undergo improvements. In 1987, for example, pension benefits for widows and dependent children were increased again and would now be linked to the Consumer Price Index. Payouts for “total physical impairment” rose from $25,000 to $40,000. Rebates under the Merit Rebate Safety Incentive Program—precursor to today’s CHOICES incentive program—went from 25 to 30 percent of assessable payroll. Affirming the principle of independence, the Yukon government announced that the Board would no longer be an adjunct to the Department of Justice but a stand-alone corporation.
Significant amendments were made to the Workers’ Compensation Act in 1999. A clause was added to ensure that workers and employers would be treated with “compassion, respect and fairness”—values that continue to guide the Board today. An independent body, the Worker’s Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT), was established to hear appeals of claims decisions made by the Board. The Workers’ Advocate was established within the Department of Justice to advise and support workers throughout the claims and appeals processes.
The Workers’ Compensation Act was overhauled in 2008, following a community review, “Moving Forward Together,” conducted with the Whitehorse and Yukon chambers of commerce and the Yukon Federation of Labour. Although the Act remained a lengthy and complex piece of legislation, a restructuring of the content and more simplified wording made it easier for workers and employers to navigate and understand its provisions. With a stated focus on rehabilitation and return to work, the Act introduced an explicit obligation on injured workers and their employers to cooperate in the return-to-work process. The Act also laid out fairer, more efficient decision-making and appeal processes.
Further amendments in 2011 introduced a presumption for firefighters suffering from certain occupational illnesses, and in early 2017 work began on a presumption for emergency response workers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Much more could be said about the first century of workers’ compensation in Yukon. It was an exciting era of economic growth and setbacks, changes in the territory’s industrial and occupational landscape, and unimaginable advances in technology. There was increasing recognition of additional causes of injury and disability—most recently those relating to mental health—and an ever-increasing emphasis on injury prevention through safety education, training and regulation. There has been one constant throughout, however: the sincere desire of every Board member, employee and partner of the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board to help ensure that workers return home safe and healthy, and when they do not, that they are supported efficiently, effectively and fairly through the recovery process.