Justin Barnes, Canada Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, interviews Rebecca Alty, Mayor of Yellowknife, about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the capital of Canada’s Northwestern Territories.
Justin: What are some of the key challenges that Yellowknife shares with other northern communities in Canada and around the globe? What are some that might set it apart?
Rebecca: I think housing, and that’s also not unique to the north — we’re seeing it across Canada — but some of the challenges and differences I would say is we’re quite a bit smaller than the rest of the mayors that I’ve been talking to internationally. Yellowknife’s population is 20,000 but another Arctic mayor I have spoken to was from a city of 100,000. Once you get to the 100,000+ scale, there’s some economies of scale that Yellowknife just doesn’t have. But issues like electricity, power, and heating are shared issues. Particularly in the North American Arctic, we’re still on diesel. How can we get to more green electricity and heating that we’re seeing in the other circumpolar areas?
I would also say that a lot of it is about infrastructure, and employee and resident attraction. I was speaking with the mayor of Luleå, Sweden, and we discussed how we share some of the same challenges related to people thinking we’re so remote and such a hinterland. People often say things like, “oh, I don’t know if I can move from either the southern part of Sweden or the southern part of Canada. You are just so rugged and hardy up there”. You just have to dress for the weather and get good clothes. But once people come to Yellowknife, I know they’re like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting such a diverse population or how urban it is.” I know that we have tall buildings but lots of it is still trying to take advantage of nature.
A related challenge is climate change and its impact on our infrastructure. It’s a pretty big theme and topic in the North. Yellowknife is what we call an Arctic desert. We don’t have a lot of precipitation, so we don’t get the snow storms that the Maritimes of Canada would get. But now we’re getting cloudier conditions. As a tourist hub, the increasingly cloudy conditions we’re experiencing is an issue for tourists coming here to see the Aurora. This is because if you stay for three days, you have a 90% chance of seeing the northern lights. But with cloudier conditions, warmer conditions, tourists are coming in and not seeing the northern lights. That’s not good for our tourism brands.
I would say the other the big theme is a lot of northern cities are resource cities. So, for example, Luleå too has a focus on mining. Communities from Greenland have been talking a lot about mining. How can we have more diverse economies? Mining is great, it provides employment. But it’s impacted by a lot of external factors. If the mining companies have to reduce their costs, then you want to make sure that you’ve got a good tourism, agriculture and post-secondary sector.
I think there’s so many similarities and a few differences, and on any of the differences, how do we scale it or how modify it to our situation? There was a session I went to at a conference that was talking about how well the other circumpolar countries do for investments in their northern municipalities and areas versus Canada. In Canada, investment tends to come through when it’s a military-focused government. Instead, let’s invest in our whole country because here in the Northwest Territories, we’re leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to Indigenous relations, when it comes to self-government, when it comes to the four governments — federal, territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments — working together. There’s lots of stuff that the world could learn.
The David Suzuki Foundation released a report about how Canada could be carbon neutral by 2030, but then there’s this big footnote: this does not include the territories. You can’t say the whole country is going to be carbon neutral except this difficult part that’s fully on diesel, that’s a speck of the population. But if you actually want to be a carbon neutral country, let’s dive into the hard part: how do we make the North carbon neutral? I think, looking to what the Scandinavian countries are doing, it’s: what can be done? Again, it’s those economies of scale. When I look at waste energy, it tends to require a certain mass to be able to make the business case. We’ve got a smaller 20,000-person population, but I was talking to the mayor of Rovaniemi in Finland and I asked them about their district heating and how they’ve gone about it. It started in the 1960s, but when you rip a road up to replace the water and sewer, that’s when you put the district heating in. So, for Yellowknife, we can’t rip up every road and do it right away. It would be incremental. That’s one thing we’re looking at here in Yellowknife. When we build our next subdivision, let’s actually look at what would be required. It would require a lot of land for the district heating system, but let’s put the pipes in the ground to the houses. Let’s get the houses designed so that they’re designed for the system.
Justin: What opportunities do you see as most promising for transitioning away from diesel? Have Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) come up as a possibility?
Rebecca: There have been some side conversations by council, but that’s where I think the territorial and federal governments should be looking at these options. As a small municipality, we don’t have the expertise to delve into that but it would be good for the Ottawa folks to be based here in the North and to actually understand what’s happening. Geothermal is another one that’s huge in Iceland, and they’ve tried to look at it in the Northwest Territories but haven’t really moved on it. We have looked at a lot of options over the years, but as business cases change and once you add the carbon tax in, all of a sudden something could have a good business case now.
Justin: What opportunities does being a northern city present? What kinds of economic opportunities do you see as the most promising for the future?
Rebecca: Cold weather testing is one thing we’ve been getting into. Aviation companies will come to Yellowknife because we’ve got the clear blue sky. It’s -40 as we’re talking today, so they’re more likely to have good flying conditions versus St John’s, Newfoundland where you get a lot of cloud cover and you can’t fly.
With Aurora College turning into the Polytechnic University, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. It’s not only creating employment with the professors, as well as the students coming, but there’s the spill over of things like coffee shops that the students are going to, the hotels that parents are staying in when they are coming to visit their kids. We also have a lot of research done in the North, but right now it’s all done by southern universities. So those positions are all located down south. if we’ve got that university here, those positions are located here. I see research applications come across my desk, so I know how much research is happening here in the North and how many dollars we’re losing. We talk a lot about the lost dollars related to not having all the diamond mind employees living in the North. There’s also a lot of lost dollars from a research perspective.
Then there’s the Aurora tourism. COVID was tough because our borders were closed, but it also gave us a bit of an opportunity to kind of get the house in order. In 2019, we saw a record-breaking year. With all of these tourists coming, we also had a lot of tourist operators that were just fly in, fly out from Toronto. In some cases, they were not creating a good experience for tourists and we want to make sure people are safe and having a good experience. So, the territorial government was able to get a few processes in place. Tourism is an area where that can definitely expand.
Yellowknife is a great community and it’s small, it’s walkable, it’s diverse. It’s got a bit of the Wild West feel still — residents take stuff on and just run with it. For example, we’ve got a big snow castle that gets built and it opens in March for the whole month, and on Fridays and Saturdays they have bands and parties all under the Northern Lights. That was started by a guy who was building a fort for his kids and it took off from there. Now 25, 30 years later, it’s this iconic thing that tourists come for. That’s just one example. I think it’s a small enough community that you’ve got that flexibility. People are willing to roll up their sleeves and get it done. I think it’s also because we don’t have much of a commute time. My walk from work to home is 7 minutes. Instead of spending 2 hours commuting, I’ve got an hour and 53 minutes to be involved in my community.
Justin: what are the main economic challenges facing Yellowknife?
Rebecca: One of the biggest ones, of course, would be the diamond mines coming to a close. For people that aren’t aware of the diamond mining business, eventually they just come to the end of their supply and they close down. There’s three operating right now and one is set to close basically next year, and then it goes into the remediation phase. That will have an impact. That’s 350 Yellowknifers who work there. But then there’s also the remediation economy. Giant Mine is a mine that shut down in the early 2000s and as it went into receivership the federal government had to take over and now the cleanup is happening. That’s going to create employment.
A challenge from an economic development perspective would be the cost and reliability of power and Internet. This cold weather could be great for data farms, but we don’t have the electricity for that. We don’t have the reliability for that. In Luleå, they haven’t had a power outage since Reagan was in office. That’s what you need. In the fall we had six power outages in one day, and that means businesses aren’t open. And at the same time, we had the Internet cut by somebody. That was our one pipeline to the South. It doesn’t happen on a regular basis but it does happen and it causes challenges.
Another challenge that’s not unique to just the North, but it’s housing. Businesses struggle to hire because there’s little housing, and the cost of housing is expensive, too. So, the challenge of getting and retaining your employees, that’s what we’re all going to be facing in the North. It’s becoming more challenging to recruit and retain.
Justin: What has Yellowknife’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic been like, and how did the community respond?
Rebecca: The Territorial government was the lead on that, and they had pretty strict protocols. If you left the territory, you knew when you came back you had to isolate for 14 days. It’s because our health care system is pretty fragile. We saw that in January 2022 with Omicron. We all have these contingency plans, but for the city, if too many people are sick for road crews, we call in a contractor to help. But all the contractors were sick, too. We managed it, but it definitely opened our eyes to how an illness can really whip through the community and cripple services. On the other hand, I think we had a lot of flexibility when it came to opening facilities up and having community events compared to the South. It was strict if you left the territory but then once you got into the territory, there was a bit more flexibility. Of course, it wasn’t fully open. We’re also still facing a lot of the mental health challenges now that came from that.
We saw a lot of young families, if they had family down south, the fact that they couldn’t readily leave and go visit family, that was a challenge. Some people decided to move home and to make sure that they’re closer to grandma and grandpa to help raise the kids or take care of a sick parent. That was definitely a challenge. I think one of the other big ones is the fact that from an immigration perspective, with borders being closed, we saw some businesses really struggling and reducing their hours just because they couldn’t get employees. It was definitely tough for employers and for small businesses. There was also lots of government jobs added and so people were leaving their small business to go get those government wages, which were temporary. There was a shake up from an employment perspective.
Justin: Were there any lessons have been learned from the experience?
Rebecca: I think it has made everybody think about their contingency plans. It’s gotten the various orders of government working together. I think we’re human, and we’ve got a short memory, we’ve got to stay on top of this. We’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping our business continuity plans and our emergency plans up to date. When people switch positions, we need to make sure that we’re making the proper introduction so that if or when something happens again, it’s not a scramble of determining who to you talk to in certain situations. That is something that we’ve got to keep in front of mind.
Justin: As Mayor of one of the largest cities and hubs in Canada’s North, and the capital of the NWT, I’m interested in your perspective about how the rest of Canada and the world might view Yellowknife. Do you feel global media reports about your region accurately?
Rebecca: Not necessarily, and not that it’s necessarily global media, but I’ll go to that. When it comes to how people know us, it’s through reality TV, and it’s often hearty shows like Ice Road Truckers and Ice Lake Rebels. I think the media portrays Yellowknife like it’s still that rugged northern exploration frontier, and then you come up and you realize it’s just a little city. I always say we have the best Ethiopian restaurant in the world, and you can go to yoga at lunch and go for a ski out on the lake after work. It’s tricky. It’s a very romantic perspective that is given. From a branding perspective, from a tourism perspective, if that’s what gets you up here, that’s great. But I think from an employment, recruitment and retention perspective, I think that could be the challenge of people thinking “oh, I’m not hardcore enough to make it there.” It’s more like, “hey, here’s some good boots to buy, here’s a good pair of snow pants and here’s a jacket. You’re going to be fine.”
Justin: What are the topics you think should be reported or discussed, but maybe aren’t as much as they should be in the Canadian or global media?
Rebecca: For the Northwest Territories and Yellowknife, it’s what’s happening in the space of Indigenous governance and things like First Nation and Metis self-government agreements and the Inuvialuit agreements. There are some court challenges right now, but the Indigenous governments are actually leading the child and family protection services and health care and similar issues. I think there’s a lot in that space that could be reported on. And of course, we always appreciate when they’re talking about our great tourism and stuff like the more rugged activities. But I think the Indigenous governance should be one of the big topics.
Justin: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to reporting on stories in Yellowknife and the community there?
Rebecca: That it can be fly-in, fly-out journalism, and that they’re going for what’s going to get clicks. This can lead to trauma tourism. They come in and they report on the mental health and addictions from intergenerational trauma without talking about the initiatives that are underway to address that. Is there enough that’s underway? No, so you could touch on that. But I think just coming in and taking photos of boarded up houses and photos of people on the streets, it’s just not the full picture. I think it’s important to get that other side: what are people doing? What have people done in the past? Why did it stop? Should it come back? I think there’s a lot of stuff that can be discussed in that way.
Justin: Are there any big developments or events coming up that would warrant some media coverage?
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m hoping that that Akaitcho self-government and land claim gets settled soon. I think it’s still a couple of years off, but that would be a big one particularly because in the Akaitcho land claim there’s a lot of land selected within Yellowknife. We’re already working with Yellowknives Dene First Nation on how they want their land to be zoned, and what they want to be built or not. It’s their land and we want to make sure that the land regulations match what they’re hoping to do with the land, whether it is land that was selected from an economic perspective, and determine how they want to develop that. They’ve selected other land because it’s culturally important, and so I think it’ll be, from a municipal perspective, some really interesting zoning and reconciliation discussions.
Justin: I just have some final questions about yourself. This is your second term as mayor, and you’ve been on council since 2012. What are some of the most notable changes you’ve seen over the past decade since you’ve been on council?
Rebecca: One of the things I’m proudest about, I would say, would be that we approved a new zoning bylaw last March and did away with the single family and restricted zoning in residential areas. We have a housing crunch here in Yellowknife and across Canada. So, this is allowing people to build a duplex or to have a secondary suite on their property, or go up to triplex or even a six-plex. We’re not talking about being able to take your single-family house and turn it into a 15-story apartment building, but it’s allowing for more homes for people in residential areas. It’s one thing to do the zoning, it’s another for people to actually use it. That’s what this next term is going to be about: how can we incentivise and identify further barriers that we can remove?
Over the ten years I would say I’ve really been working to get our house in order. We don’t want to lose that “Wild West” feeling — residents like being able to do stuff on their own initiative. But at the same time, having policies in place so that we’re not reinventing the wheel for every new project. Part of that is closely looking at our asset management and the condition of our assets, and making sure that we’re being as fiscally responsible as possible. The city’s working well because every morning they turn on the taps, get drinking water, flush the toilet, throw out their Kleenex, we pick it all up. But there’s a lot behind the scenes to make it that smooth and that’s what we’re really focused on: making sure that our assets are in good condition, that we’re not replacing them too early or too late. This includes having more consistent taxes. That’s not to say that it’s zero every year, but to avoid zero percent of a tax increase on an election year and then have double digit increase the next year. We’ve got to plan more holistically.
Our last budget was where we were able to get the data on, for example, fleet management — our fleet being all of the machines and equipment that we own. We took a 50-year view to think about how much it’s going to cost per year. There’s a giant spike every time you have to buy a new fire truck. It’s important to make sure that you don’t buy the fire truck and another big piece of equipment the same year. Can we move one forward? Can we move one back? Could we save a bit more one year to balance out the next year? It’s been good visual for people to be able to comprehend why we just continuously save for something.
Justin: You mentioned before the interview that you’re involved in a variety of different groups and associations as mayor of Yellowknife. What kind of roles do you have outside of the city representing Yellowknife?
Rebecca: I’m the president of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities, and so that’s our advocacy and lobby group for all mayors and chiefs and councils across the Northwest Territories. I’m also on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, so I am able to engage with federal ministers and staff at the federal level to help influence programs and policies that come out. For example, Rapid Housing is a program that the feds released, and we all appreciate the spirit and intent of it. However, how it was rolled out wouldn’t benefit the North because you had to use the money within a year. If you’re a community like Paulatuk, which is on the coast, it’s got no road access. They’ve got to know a year ahead so they can order the supplies and get it on the barge and then get shipped up. We want to use the money as fast as possible, however, as fast as possible in the North means about a year and a half. We were able to communicate that and they granted us an extension, and then in future iterations of that, they took it into consideration. There’s still a lot to do. Policy and program people change and there’s a need for re-educating folks on the reality of the North so that they appreciate what you want to do. The way federal policy programs are designed, it’s not always going to meet the intended outcomes. So, I do lots of that outside of the day to day of running Yellowknife.
Justin: Final question, what do you love about Yellowknife? Why is it a great place to live?
Rebecca: I love it because it’s so walkable. I love the community spirit. The fact that I’m a mayor was just a case of a friend asking me to help with her campaign. So, I went to this campaign school for women that was being run one weekend, and all of a sudden, I thought, “hey, I think I want to do this.” I then put my name forward as a candidate for council. There’s lots of ways to be involved in our community. If you see something that’s missing, you just have to find a few more people that also feel the same way and all of a sudden, they can make anything can happen. I also like how walkable it is. I like how much you can do one day because you don’t have that commute time. I also like the 24-hour daylight in the summer. It’s amazing being able to go for a walk at 11:00 pm. Or when you’re going for a paddle or when you’re on a camping, you don’t have to bring a lamp or anything. So, yeah, it’s great.