Yellowknife 2018 council election interview: John Dalton
John Dalton, a councillor three decades ago, seeks a return to Yellowknife City Council and says the current incumbents have “lost the respect” of residents.
Dalton told Cabin Radio he believes some aspects of City Hall’s work have been “studied to death” and he’d like to see more actual implementation instead.
He also expressed concern at money being spent on outlying areas such as Grace Lake, when he feels the downtown is in greater need of infrastructure, housing, and resources.
Dalton said with him on board, council would also be encouraged to work toward better relations with local Indigenous leaders – and increase transparency.
“I would want to see a council that is far more communicative on where they are going, much more open,” he said.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
This interview was recorded on October 9, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Why did you want to run?
John Dalton: I’ve been on council before. In the last several years, I’ve not been particularly happy with the direction council has taken in some of its decisions – and we have major decisions coming up, and I think over the last year or two there have been things council has made decisions on that have resulted in council losing its respect in the community. I have wanted to get back on, I want to change the discussion a little bit and challenge the discussion publicly instead of behind closed doors.
Let’s talk about your experience first. When were you last on city council?
I was on council under Mayor McMahon (1988-94), so that’s quite a number of years ago. I’ve been on boards and very active in the community all my life. We came here in 1972. I had six or so terms on school boards, on the hospital board, the NACC board… so I’ve had a wide variety of experience on governing boards.
You look at council now and you sound unimpressed. Why?
Council has, over the years, studied many things and yet I don’t see a lot of development on implementation. We’ve studied some issues to death.
Give us examples.
The homeless, the downtown revitalization–
Well hang on, the homeless? They’ve got a 10-year plan to end homelessness, they’re a year into it, they’ve earmarked more than $100 million in budget. What more do you want?
Well, there are quite a number of things they could have been doing for the last six years.
But the point is, now they have a plan.
They do have a plan.
And they’re implementing it.
And they’re starting to implement it. If you look at the plan, there is no funding committed all the way down through that 10 years. I think they have to make the commitment. I think the 10-year plan deals with accommodation, a lot of it. However, it doesn’t deal with providing services to them so they can deal with their own, personal issues.
Are you sure about that?
I don’t see any real indication that they’re out on the street, dealing with that in an active way.
Well, last week they opened a combined day shelter and sobering centre downtown.
They opened a… that’s been in existence, yes.
They just opened a new facility.
Because they changed locations.
And added a sobering centre.
That is correct. But if you go and listen and even see what they’ve got in backing on that, in the area of dealing with the counselling and with the group of people who don’t go into that centre… they don’t all go in there. We’re not dealing with the issue on the street with our own street patrols. We don’t see that, as yet?
What do you think of the employment program the City runs for homeless people?
That particular program is great. But it’s limited in its scope. We, as a city, have to get other people and other organizations involved in those things.
So how would you do it differently? What would your approach be?
They… and I think there are many other issues besides the homeless, but–
We’ve got time.
I would look at expanding that program to the public sector, the employment program. I would look at taking that and building into it a component of not only employment but also support counselling while they’re on the job. With industry, I would look at building avenues and training programs or employment programs that would not be jeopardized if they fall off the work schedule and lose a couple of days. They would have a way to get back into it so we build on it. And the other thing is this: I would want to see a real discussion in the area of social support. There’s no incentive for them to go out and work if they’re on social assistance and they earn too much. I think there is a need for government to allow people to earn money and still retain the essence of social assistance so they have an incentive to continue working. I’m advocating not reducing benefits, but allowing the person to then earn some money over and above, and not have it clawed back.
Is that a municipal issue, or something where you’d be looking at council to go to the territorial government?
It’s not a municipal… because we don’t give them the assistance. It’s a policy we would have to change at the territorial level. If you go and talk to people on the street that are in social assistance, a lot of them say: ‘There is no incentive. If I go out and work, they are going to claw it back. So what’s the point?’ And that’s been an issue for many years, across the country. There have been places, though, that have changed that approach and allowed them to earn more than what they can, so they have an incentive to go out and continue their employment.
You mentioned downtown revitalization as well. What do you think you could bring to council there?
It’s been looked at and reviewed for many years, and it’s not an issue that’s strictly Yellowknife. It’s across the country. Revitalization of downtown has to deal with getting industry and other businesses involved in it, to renovate; to develop; to improve, which is a zoning issue. Multiple-use buildings. And having incentives to do that, similar to what we have out in the Engle Business District, where they can purchase lots and don’t pay the taxes for a number of years. That approach, modified to the downtown, can maybe attract businesses back in here to look at revitalizing a combination of the buildings. We need people to be living in the downtown area as well as working and, if we have a good approach with the homelessness and start dealing with that, those issues can be minimized over time. But we have to look at what mix of downtown Yellowknife we want. There are apartments and condos, but there are buildings in this place that can be revamped and reworked, first of all to fill them; and possibly to fill them with residences.
So in your mind, it’s stripping away some of the cost and regulation that would discourage businesses from operating in the downtown?
That’s part of it, yes. But it has to be a multi-program look at dealing with the people, the rent issues, the high costs.
At the very top of your list of issues on your pamphlet in front of me here, you have ‘stagnant population growth’. What can a city council do to address that?
We can be marketing Yellowknife right across the country as a destination. We have a fantastic opportunity to actually market Yellowknife as a place to live. We don’t really do that as well. I see more evidence in Hay River, in its marketing schemes to try to bring industry and organizations.
OK. But we’ve just discussed your suggestion that homelessness has not really been tackled yet; the downtown requires deep revitalization; you’ve alluded to the high cost of living. What on earth are you going to put on a brochure to attract people to Yellowknife, at this rate?
We have excellent facilities, schools, hospitals… a unique opportunity for people to take five minutes and you’re in the wilderness. We’ve got lots to sell. And the people in Yellowknife are fantastic. I came here in 1972, and we had a considerably smaller community. I realized it was a great place to raise my children. So, no. We have lots to offer people.
To address population growth, you would establish some form of marketing organization on behalf of the City?
You have to market your city. In that process, we would also be looking at industries or our growth insofar as employment opportunities. There isn’t a contractor in town that doesn’t need tradespeople, and there are many communities that put out advertising and information within their publications of employment opportunities in the broad sense. Our service industry needs people. You incorporate that process in that, you work with employers by giving them packages they can send out to prospective employees, you work with governments that receive thousands of applications and, when they give interviews, having information you can give to those people. You look at the military, so they can send out – and they’re going to be expanding with the Rangers – to give you an example. The cities elsewhere quite often provide information they can send to prospective people coming up to Yellowknife, and its advantages. It’s an active marketing program that works in conjunction with employers and governments.
How much research have you done into what already happens?
I had 29 years with Human Resources Development Canada and was very active in developing some of that material and stuff years ago. It’s not available, that I can find, now. I’ve lots of experience in employment and training issues to bring to council. I’ve seen some of the City’s brochures; I haven’t seen them actually working that closely with industry and government. And some of their pamphlets are outdated.
Also on your list you have ‘council integrity’. What do you mean by that?
There have been issues in the last while that have questioned council’s ability to make decisions on sensitive issues. People are wondering what’s happening because of lack of communication on many things. And it’s integrity of… primarily I’m referring to the issue of staff relations and staffing situations.
You believe there’s an integrity issue there?
Of them not dealing with the issue, yes. I think there has been a moral failing in some of the issues, in allowing people to be actively still involved in decisions while under review.
Right, you’re talking about Doug Gillard.
I’m talking about, in particular, that one, yes.
What would you have wanted council to do differently?
If an employer has a staff member who is in the public eye, that had been accused of a wide variety of things, they would – with pay – take him out of his position and not leave him in his position until the issue is fully resolved.
Council has, in the past year, initiated a raft of new policies to deal with this. Do you believe those suitably address that?
Partially. You have to remember, this council has had two terms to be dealing with this.
Some members have.
The majority. And these issues extend over a number of terms, and the allegations extend back over a number of terms. Yes, they have looked at changes in the last year, but the individual is still in a position and is still actively involved in meetings.
That’s different, though, that’s not the same as talking about policies and procedures. You’re dealing with an employee and employer working to a collective bargaining agreement, there are unions involved, it’s not as simple as city council sitting there and taking a decision. The whole point of the policies and procedures would be to help you deal with that, surely?
Oh, that would help you deal with it.
The council can’t fire that individual.
Oh absolutely not. There’s only one person who can fire them, and that’s the chief executive officer. But the council gives the leadership of having both the policies in and the broad direction, then it’s her decision or his decision.
But you make it sound as though you would have been advocating for that individual to have been removed from post permanently.
I didn’t say permanently.
You sounded very sceptical about the fact they are still in post.
They would have to be employed, you cannot remove them permanently until an investigation and a review has been done. And I don’t think that they handled the process well.
We’ve got time for one more, and I’ll pick ‘budget priorities’ from your list. What are you looking at when you highlight that?
If you look at the amount of money being spent on the outlying areas like the Engle Business District, Grace Lake, the new subdivisions out there… they are new areas, a great deal of money and infrastructure has been put in there. We have a great deal of need for infrastructure in the downtown core, we have a need for infrastructure or even housing in a closer proximity. We’ve had projects… Niven Lake is not completed, as an area of the city for development. We have not resurrected the issue of the bypass road on the other side of Frame Lake, connecting at the Co-op and across over to the highway, which opens up an area for development.
It does. It also destroys an area that people enjoy.
It doesn’t destroy it if it’s done properly. If we’re looking at development, the wildlife is all the way around Yellowknife, there are three trails in that area back on the other side, and development can be done in a way that does not remove and still leaves the green spaces. They’re not looking at that, and I think their priorities of expenditure and development further out of town don’t meet our immediate needs.
What is your vision, three or four years down the line? Where do you see Yellowknife being if you are successful, and elected, and council deals with some of the issues you’re talking about?
In looking down the road, we have to build closer relationships with the Yellowknives Dene Band. We have to have much broader relationships, other than talking about roads and sewer services.
And there is now a full-time member of City staff helping with that.
Just employed. Possibly too late. That should and could have been done many years ago, back when they were talking about doing a casino convention centre on the hill. I would see a more open community, a better relationship with our neighbours in the self-governments. I would see us better focused on tourism. I would see us with plans in place for an expansion at the airport, for a longer runway to attract larger planes that could land here. I would hope we can be much closer to a community convention centre that would serve not only the tourist industry, it could then bring large conventions into Yellowknife which would support the hotels and the small businesses, support the service industry. I would want to see us actively attracting other businesses to town by having incentives on tax and so on, to attract them in. I would want to see those incentives applied to existing buildings so they are upgraded, and so we fill the space in all the vacant buildings we do have. I would want to see a council that is far more communicative on where they are going, much more open. Just to begin. I could see us a far more rounded and enjoyable community.