Julian Morse put Yellowknife’s post-secondary future squarely at the centre of his bid for re-election to city council.
Morse believes education has the potential to be as big an economic driver as tourism, if not bigger, in attracting people and investment to the city.
“When you look at municipalities in other jurisdictions,” said Morse, “often the economy of that city ends up revolving around the university.”
Morse believes Yellowknife has made “significant progress” in tackling homelessness during his first three-year term on council, while he wants to see the City conduct a governance audit to help council function more smoothly in future.
He considers himself a “thoughtful, considerate, well-researched” candidate for the job.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
This interview was recorded on September 25, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Why should the citizens of Yellowknife re-elect you?
Julian Morse: I feel that I’ve done a good job in my first term as a councillor. I’ve pushed a couple of initiatives. I think I’ve been very good about being present at the meetings, being very vocal about my opinions and stances on issues, and I think I’ve been consistent and strong. I think I could bring the experience that I’ve gained in the first term into the second term and be more effective as a councillor.
From the last three years, what would you point to and say you did?
Probably the most standout was the university feasibility study that we did in 2018. That was a budget item that I put forward and was approved by my colleagues. It has culminated in us not only undertaking the feasibility study but establishing a post-secondary advisory committee, which I’ve appointed as the chair of. That’s a committee tasked with strategically advising council regarding promoting the city as a post-secondary hub.
The territorial government received an independent report suggesting Aurora College could be replaced by a Yellowknife-based polytechnic university. How do you see the City’s role in advancing that?
Influencing the territorial government is the first step. The committee has had some meetings about that. The territorial government is preparing its response to the report and so, the first step for us is just promoting the city and saying we endorse the recommendations of the report and look forward to working with the GNWT. The next step, which is what the feasibility study is about, is discussing what the City can do to promote and assist this idea and identify any barriers and challenges that exist right now to establishing the situation, and seeing what the City can do about that.
In a lot of interviews we’ve done, homelessness has been a big issue – we’ll come on to that – and economic diversification is a big issue for everybody. Fewer people talk about post-secondary education. Do you see that as being central to the next few years?
Yes, I do. I wouldn’t say that few people are talking about it. Adrian Bell and Rebecca Alty are both talking about that in their platforms. People who have been briefed on the issue, and are well aware of the benefits that establishing a high-calibre post-secondary education institution in the city could bring… most people who understand that would say it could potentially be a big economic development opportunity for the city. There are not a huge amount of ideas, beyond tourism, that I’ve seen, in terms of things that could really be an economic anchor for the city. So when you look at municipalities in other jurisdictions, many of which are a similar size to Yellowknife, that have established post-secondary, often the economy of that city ends up revolving around the university. The university can be a very large employer; obviously it brings lots of people into the city that wouldn’t otherwise live there, as students. You can think of it similar to tourism. The other thing, too, is there are research dollars for the work involved and all the economic spin-offs from the activities that a university fosters. I really do think it could potentially be a big economic development if all the right pieces come together and all the players come together.
What makes you the right person to have at the centre of that?
I don’t know if I would want to say that I would necessarily be at the centre of it. I mean, it was council that approved the feasibility study. It’s not like I’m a lone voice on this, I just happened to have been appointed to chair this committee.
But you’ve taken a lead and identified it as a specialist interest of yours, so what do you bring to that?
Leadership, for one thing. We started out, three years ago – it was a conversation that was being had in many circles. I have to credit Erin Freeland Ballantyne at Dechinta University, who spent a lot of time with me talking about this issue, and many different people, bringing that conversation to the point where the City got involved. I really believe my leadership was integral to making that happen and, you know, I didn’t know at the time – when we were pursuing that – that the Aurora College Foundation Review would have the recommendations in it that it did. That was, to a certain extent, a serendipitous occasion, and could potentially lead to something big happening.
Another part of your platform mentions partnerships with communities. How careful do you have to be about cheerleading for a university in Yellowknife when you have a community like Fort Smith, where there is really anger about that report’s conclusions and worry about its economy?
Yeah, that’s a great question. A position I have taken publicly with the minister several times, in different meetings, is that Yellowknife is not trying to position itself against Fort Smith in any way. Ultimately, it is a challenge the GNWT is going to have to overcome. There are a number of challenges people have brought up with establishing such an institution. I’m very in support of the GNWT coming up with solutions to ensure establishing such an institution wouldn’t hurt a community like Fort Smith. On the other side of the coin, I’d point out that both YKDFN and the community government of Behchokǫ̀ are sitting as members on the post-secondary advisory committee. The community government of Behchokǫ̀ has gone as far as to endorse the City’s university feasibility study, because they see the value in partnering with the City and getting involved with an initiative that is going to have territorial benefits. They see a lot of research dollars coming into the city that aren’t being utilized the way that they could, and they see the potential for growth here, so I think – when we’re talking about communities – we need to take a wider stance. It’s more than just Yellowknife and Fort Smith. We’re talking about all the way up the Mackenzie Valley; Inuvik is implicated as well. The most relevant institution is Yukon College, which has campuses throughout the Yukon on top of their main campus.
When you refer to the economy, you mention post-secondary and tourism. Let’s look at tourism. What would you hope to see council doing over the next few years to develop that?
One conversation that is very important happened over our last term and will be important early in the next term – that’s re-establishing the visitor centre. That’s a big one. Administration has made a huge amount of progress on the tourism file in the past three years. I was just at a meeting last week where the City was presenting to the territorial government on their draft amendments to the Cities, Towns, and Villages Act, which would allow the City to enact a tourism levy – a hotel levy, which would allow them to establish and fund a destination marketing organization. We have made a huge amount of progress on marketing. The next step is talking about tourist experiences. I think a lot of people would agree that Yellowknife is not quite there in terms of how big the tourism industry can be, the activities being offered to tourists. I think there is a huge amount of potential in this region for cultural tourism, and I think you could expand that right up the Mackenzie Valley. We need to be talking about… we’re advertising the city, now how do we make it a place people are really going to talk about when they go home, so their friends come and visit?
AirBnB is a useful bellwether of how different candidates approach a similar topic.
The City is currently in the process of its second round of public engagement on that, and I’m very curious to see what that produces. The first decision before council was do we pursue regulation? I did vote in favour of that, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and the only caveat I would put on that is: with the hotel levy potentially coming forward, we have heard from licensed BnB operators that they don’t feel it’s fair AirBnB can operate without any regulation and yet they have quite stringent regulations. So, pretty much my two positions going into ‘do we regulate or not’ were: it seems to me we need to level the playing field to a certain extent, but I think that could go both ways. We could talk about reducing the amount of regulation licensed BnBs are currently under, and a small amount of regulation for AirBnBs, just in the sense of having them licensed as a business, which could be a very simple online process. It’ll allow us to track the issue. I don’t think we want to get into regulating much beyond that at this time. I think it’s important to consider that AirBnB is offering a service to tourists. We can’t be promoting tourism and also stifling an industry promoting tourism. We need to establish a balance there.
Another big issue that won’t go anywhere any time soon is homelessness. The City has a 10-year plan. Are you happy with that plan?
Yes. Something I would say is that I think, if you look back on where we were just three years ago, that was one of the main conversations that dominated the 2015 election. If you look at what’s been achieved since then, I actually think it’s quite significant. We now have the SOS van, that didn’t exist. Council established the homelessness employment program at the last budget. In partnership with the GNWT the sobering centre has been established, which is a huge thing. That’s going to be a significant change, huge kudos goes to the GNWT for making that happen so quickly. And of course we established the 10-year plan. When you look at that as a package of action that’s happened – especially considering that sometimes things move quite slowly in government – I would say, between the City and the territorial government, a lot of credit is due. I don’t feel that we are 100 percent there yet. There is still more that needs to happen, I think some of these programs can be expanded upon. I’ve heard very good things about the employment program and I look forward to supporting that more in the future. Something that has been raised a few times: Councillors Bell, Silverio, and I went to Kelowna last spring, and did a tour with a program they have called the downtown ambassador program, which is kind-of a mix between an ambassador to the city – so, somebody who anybody travelling around downtown can approach with questions – and also a social role in the sense of guiding people towards services, interacting and liaising with municipal enforcement and the police. That’s a program Councillor Bell brought forward for Budget 2019 and I think I’d be supportive of that, and potentially it’ll help to continue to fill the gaps.
Speaking of things brought forward for Budget 2019, you brought forward a governance audit. Explain what that is.
One of the tenets of my platform is more effective governance. I think something I’m going to be able to bring to the table as an incumbent is experience, what you’ve learned. You can serve as a mentor to newer councillors. I’ve also been taking more formalized training on leadership. We’ve been, as a council, looking at some of the issues we had over the past three years. There are a lot of issues that I’ve seen council seemingly spinning their wheels on, where subjects come back over and over. I’ve been contemplating why that is, and I think something identified by a few of us is that council has not been spending enough time discussing policy, taking on the role of governance as opposed to getting into fairly small issues that I think would be better served by administration if they were guided by clear policy development from council
What’s an example of that?
It’s kind-of a cumulation of decisions. Council got into an interesting discussion regarding sidewalks on Calder Crescent. That ended up culminating in what was definitely a consensus amongst councillors that we need to come up with development standards as opposed to discussing things street-by-street. That’s a perfect example of council getting into the weeds, identifying we can’t do it like this, and saying let’s develop standards so we don’t. To get back to the governance audit, I think it’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time. We did do a governance review but it didn’t really give us a lot of information about how we’re making decision, the way the organization is structured, and the role of council and SAO. And that’s something that also I think caused a fair bit of conflict for the last council, was council and SAO having disagreements about what people’s roles are and what our jurisdiction was as council, and what is the SAO’s jurisdiction. An audit could help give council some advice on how to be more effective, and clarify for us and administration where the roles are.
What does Yellowknife need from its next mayor?
What we need is a mayor who’s going to liaise well with other levels of government. There are a lot of relationships to maintain and develop there. We need a mayor who provides leadership to council, who can coordinate well with councillors, and another thing: when talking about the governance audit, something I’ve also identified that could really help councillors, especially new ones, is having someone that could bring them together and ask what they would like to accomplish. Working with council to turn that into policy direction, strategic planning, that kind of thing. While our council did do some of that at the beginning, I don’t think we’ve been as effective as we could have been. I’d like to see the mayor help us be more effective.
Lastly, there are obviously a fair number of returning candidates hoping to get re-elected. They will all say they have experience, everyone talks about cost of living and diversification. There are newcomers professing to have great ideas. What is specific to you, that is a reason you should be re-elected?
I think I’ve been consistently a very thoughtful voice on council. I’m well-researched, I show up. I do bring new ideas, the post-secondary feasibility study is one example of that. I would point out that a lot of people are campaigning on economic development – and that is important. The reason people are campaigning on it is it is a serious issue. I brought forward, for the 2019 budget, a renewal of the economic development strategy. I would like to see us strengthen our economic development department. I really believe I bring a very thoughtful and considerate perspective to decision-making. I’m good at working well with my colleagues and I look forward to potentially being given the opportunity to continue the good work that we’ve done. I think we have achieved a lot of good things and I think there is much more work to do. From the beginning, when I ran in 2015, something I identified is I’m really interested in securing the long-term future of Yellowknife – and that’s still my goal. I’m in this to ensure that as we go into the 2020s, Yellowknife will have a strong economic future. That’s what I’m focused on. I think I’ve done good work toward that and I hope to continue that work.