‘We can’t keep doing what we’re doing’ – Rebecca Alty interview
Yellowknife’s new mayor-elect, Rebecca Alty, says big changes have to happen to keep the city on the right track.
Alty beat nearest rival Adrian Bell by more than 700 votes in Monday’s election. Her four-year term begins on November 5.
On this page, read our full, extensive interview with Alty about her campaign, her ambitions now she has been elected, and the city’s future.
Alty said she will look to new energy solutions for Yellowknife, in particular, to be transformative for the city’s fortunes – whether that’s connecting to the southern grid or exploiting new technologies.
“We can’t just continue to do what we’re doing. We do have to look at something. For me, I think it is power,” she said, listing homelessness as her other major priority for the four years ahead.
She also vowed to make more use of northern expertise, saying: “We are an incredibly smart community. Sometimes we always go south for that knowledge and I think we really need to start looking here, in our own backyard, for that wealth.”
Read a transcript of the full interview below.
This interview was recorded on October 16, 2018.
Ollie Williams: Walk us through your morning as it sinks in that you will be the new mayor of Yellowknife.
Rebecca Alty: I woke up bright and early to get on the CBC at 7am, and then I’ve just been trying to catch up on all the messages. I still haven’t made my way through them all but I’ll get there by the end of the day, then it’s prepping for clean-up of all the signs and stuff tonight, so… never a dull moment. I get to clean everything up plus council is still in, so I’ve still got my council duties. Now that I’ve been successful, I’ve also got to notify my work that I won’t be returning! So I’ll pop in there this afternoon.
When do you become the mayor, officially?
The first Monday of November – November 5.
Have you snuck into City Hall yet, had a scout around the mayor’s office, designed where the furniture is going to go, moved in a couple of potted plants?
I haven’t yet, but I have visualized where some of my tracking and implementation boards are going to be. My plan is to grab a coffee and head over there shortly.
You mention tracking and implementation boards so let’s talk about some of this stuff. What are the more visible changes you think we might see with Rebecca Alty as mayor of Yellowknife, now?
The one thing I do really want is to have, on our website, an area where you can go and see how we are tracking on our various initiatives. So green, yellow, red, we’re doing great here, we’ve run into a roadblock here, so councillors and residents can see the progress. Council orientation is coming up this weekend so we’re really hitting the ground running, and then Budget 2019 kicking off in November – well, it has already kicked off, but…
You’re straight into it, in other words. There is not much of a grace period. You have night after night of budget planning and review to get through, pretty-much as soon as your feet are under that desk. We have an idea of the platform you ran on. What did you hear from other people, though? You had a chance to hear other people’s platforms and see issues that maybe you hadn’t included. Was there anything that you heard, or saw, where you thought: ‘Yeah, we need to address that’?
I don’t think there is anything I was missing. When I was going door-to-door, the top three things I heard were the cost of living, where I talked about working with the GNWT and other partners to reduce that through power; it was about the downtown and homelessness, and that was a big focus for me; and the third one was the pool – not that it was necessarily part of my platform, but definitely something that I acknowledge about making sure, when we are analyzing those capital projects, we look at both the current cost plus what the cost will be… the operating and maintenance costs ongoing. I think I addressed all that in my platform. I know there were some other candidates with some other ideas, but those weren’t ideas I was hearing a lot of support for at the doors.
I’ll come back to the pool in a second. Let’s talk about some of those ideas you feel you didn’t hear support for. A lot of newcomer candidates, who hadn’t been on council before, expressed concerns with transparency and accountability at council level. To take an example, at least two candidates came in here and told me they felt they could never get a hold of the mayor, and residents should be able to go into City Hall, find the mayor, and sit down with them. There should be open access to the individuals in charge: the directors, the mayor. What do you think about that?
I agree. And I don’t think it’s a case of the mayor hiding, I think the mayor is busy. Yes, you may have to call or go in and then schedule a meeting. But it’s a job that has you out and about in the community a lot, and in meetings a lot. It’s not a lack of transparency, it’s that the mayor is actually getting out there and doing stuff. It may be that, when you come to City Hall, I may not be there or may be in meetings. It’s not me hiding from you, it’s me making sure we get that stuff done that we talked about on the campaign trail.
On a related note, you have obviously done your job at City Hall part-time, till now. You worked most recently for a diamond mine, you’ve had other jobs here in the city in the past, and – as everybody knows – city council is not a full-time gig, people do it off the side of their desk while doing their full-time job. Now you will be a full-time officer representing the public. How much have you thought about the change that will make to how you do this?
It’s definitely a difference, being able to really dedicate more time to getting into the issues, but then also meeting with other partners to really make sure I understand the issues and then work with them to discuss solutions and how to implement that. I’m really looking forward to being able to dedicate more time and really get into the issues and work them forward. It’s exciting.
And I said I’d come back to the pool. It sounds to me like you heard concerns from people that the City doesn’t let the ongoing cost implications of that get out of hand, and that the pool remains a financially viable thing for us to pursue. What stage are we at, with the pool? Is there a chance that we pull the plug on it, and say we can’t do a pool right now?
Yeah, sorry. To be clear: folks were really supportive of the pool and want to make sure it goes ahead. For me, yes, it should go ahead – just recognizing that… doing it as fiscally responsible. The message is: ‘We don’t want tax increases. We want the cost of living low, but we want the pool.’ So making sure that we balance that.
That’s going to be the story of the next four years of your life, isn’t it?
It’s going to be: ‘We would like the nice thing, but can we please not have to pay any more.’
And it’s been the story for the last six, too. That’s where the juggling and… it’s where you get out and start talking to people more, and scratching the surface, which is what I want to do with creating service standards so that we can identify what those high priorities are for community members, and what some of the lower priorities are, so when it comes to budgets we can do the trade-offs or explain better if it is a tax increase because it’s supporting something they think is a deep passion for the community. Really, it’s understanding what are the core priorities and how can we try to make it all work together?
After you came in to talk to me during the campaign – we did a big interview at the time – a letter was published in the Yellowknifer newspaper by David Connelly, who is a mining consultant in the North and also a fairly prominent member of the Conservative Party of Canada. His letter called for Yellowknifers to elect a mayor and council with a bold vision that would be transformative. In his view, the NWT and Yellowknife are entering extremely uncertain times. Closure of diamond mines is on the horizon. There is not a lot necessarily in the pipeline to immediately replace those. Do you share his concern for the immediate future of Yellowknife, and do you feel like there does need to be transformative action?
I do share his concerns. With the next big diamond mine closing in 2024, that’s 400 Yellowknife residents that’ll be impacted. Those are our neighbours, friends, and family, so we can’t just continue to do what we’re doing. We do have to look at something. For me, I think it is power: if it is not affordable, if it is not reliable, if we don’t have enough, that impacts our economy. So really, working with the GNWT. When it’s transformative or those ideas have big visions, it’s working together to create that and really prioritizing what we want to focus on. We can’t do everything, so what are we going to do well? I think it’s those two files of power and working on the homelessness issues.
So when you say power, you mean connecting us to the southern grid?
If that’s one option. Or with batteries, and the technology that has changed there in the past couple of years. It’s being able to draw power from the hydro plant during off-peak hours and then using it during peak hours, because, right now, we sometimes can’t produce enough hydro during peak hours so then we’re using diesel. I think there are some opportunities to look at a lot of different options. Let’s look at the options, analyze them, and then let’s implement something.
And by the end of your term you would hope to have something implemented that will make a significant difference to power up here?
I realize that is not entirely, or even at all, within your power. But the lobbying capability is.
Correct. The challenge will be that we’ve got one year left with the GNWT and the federal government and then, potentially, all the players can change again and the priorities can change. Right now, it looks like the GNWT with their energy strategy for 2030 are supportive of the Taltson expansion. The federal government has recently come out with an Arctic policy framework – they are drafting it – and have identified infrastructure and a reduction in diesel as key priority areas for the territory. I’m hopeful that, at the federal and territorial level, we will get some movement on this.
The voters of Yellowknife yesterday decided you and councillors deserve four-year terms, not three. They enacted a bylaw to make that change. What difference will it make that you now have four years in this job, not three like your predecessors?
It does make a difference, especially as a new mayor in a new role as a mayor that now votes. We’ve got three new councillors. There is still that gelling as a whole team, because we are different, and so being able to formulate our vision and then start implementing it… I think, just having that extra year, we’ll be able to get more done. I definitely felt it in this past term, this third year we were really just cranking stuff out. If we had one more year, and it wasn’t an election year, I think we could have maybe seen a bit more of our stuff start progressing more. It’ll give us an extra year to get stuff done.
What kind of tone do you hope to strike with the new council? You have an extra year with everybody, there are new faces. How do you get everyone on the same page?
It starts off with council orientation this weekend and next weekend. Then meeting with councillors individually to understand more about what they want to do, so–
What happens on council orientation? Group paintball exercise? Do you all go down to Kingpin bowl?
It’s super fun stuff. We get lawyers in to talk about what an in-camera meeting is. There are lots of rules, procedures, discussion. What administration and councillors do. Not paintball or anything. Maybe we can do something in the evenings.
Coming back, then, to the tone that you’ll strike…
That’s the getting together and meeting with councillors, understanding where they want to go, and then working to create that plan together. Then implementing it and getting everybody to see those results together.
Yellowknifers woke to the news this morning that not only are you the mayor-elect, but Doug Gillard – the manager of municipal enforcement – has been moved to a separate division within City Hall as of yesterday. He now manages a separate emergency response division and no longer has direct authority over municipal enforcement officers. Do you feel as though, with that move – which wasn’t publicized by the City – that draws a line under that, and allows you as a mayor to start fresh on that?
I haven’t really even been able to catch up. Yesterday I was all focused on my campaign. So today, I am catching up on emails regarding that.
OK. Did you know that was happening?
I had heard, yep. But I haven’t read all of the details yet.
I’m sure you, as a mayor, will be hoping to avoid anything like that happening on your watch.
Definitely, making sure the culture at City Hall is respectful and productive, because with employee engagement, that’s where we get the real results and people wanting to jump out of bed and come to work. I think that is a big focus area, too.
Do you feel as though there is still stuff the City and you, as the mayor, can do differently to engage staff? Is it on the right track now?
It’s on the right track now. It is really with the senior administrative officer and she has had a focus on that, so I have comfort in the work she has been doing.
The senior administrative officer is Sheila Bassi-Kellett. What’s your relationship like with her?
We’ve got a good working relationship. I’ve worked with her previously at the GNWT. I think she’s got a good background with the GNWT in understanding how it works, and really brings that level to the municipality, which I think is a real benefit for residents.
We’ve already mentioned that you are straight into it with Budget 2019, figuring out the City’s financial priorities. What do you expect from that?
I’m sure a big discussion will be about the positions, the 13 positions that were presented.
To clarify, that’s 13 positions City staff have said ‘we could use these positions’ to provide ideal programs and services for the community, and now it’s going to come down to council to say whether we can do that or not.
Exactly. Those 13 positions, councillors will then decide if they agree with City administration that these are core priorities – and then they’ll have to make some choices about if we don’t get that position, this is what the service level looks like, or do we shift a resource from another area, and stuff. It’s always a lot of great discussion and I think, with five senior councillors plus myself as a previous councillor, the new councillors will have lots of opportunity to ask questions and understand the process.
That’s a tough gig for the new councillors. It’s one of the toughest things to do – we come back to that balance between spending and program delivery – and you’re dealing with creating jobs or not, extra employment but then, what if taxes have to rise? It’s almost all the issues of being a councillor represented in the issue of do you add staff. And you’ll have to spend time walking people through that, won’t you?
For sure. That’s why we wanted to kick off orientation as soon as possible, so we can get people up to speed and comfortable, and hopefully get the budget into their hands as soon as possible in November.
Have you had a chance yet – and I appreciate you’ve barely had a chance to sleep, never mind do anything else since being elected – to speak to any of your fellow successful female mayoral candidates?
Not fully, but Lynn from Fort Smith did reach out and send me a Facebook message. She’s in touch frequently and I’d love to meet up and create those good relationships across the NWT. We have a need to build better relations with the Tlicho Government, the Community Government of Behchoko, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Creating those relationships with other mayors and chiefs is really important.
What does it say to you that the territory only had four female mayoral candidates and put them all into office?
It’s quite the change for 2018. I was talking to a mom during this term and she thanked me for running, and said her daughter, seven years old, didn’t think anything of it. ‘Well, of course a woman can run!’ Whereas really we haven’t had a woman present for mayor in the past 18 years. If this can normalize for young women, young girls, that would be awesome.
And your council is significantly more diverse, as well, than the last term. All female candidates who ran were elected. You have representation from a range of different communities. You have an Indigenous city councillor, and it has been a long time since a mayor of Yellowknife could say that. Where do you think that change has come from?
It’s incredible. I’m not quite sure what the flip has been, but I was really thrilled to see all the candidates putting their names forward and see the variety of opinions. Maybe it’s a reflection that they felt their voice wasn’t being heard on the previous council, I’m not quite sure.
What do you do with the rest of your week, now, as you get ready to take on this big, big job?
Clean up tonight, get the signs down. Then really working to formulate my plan for the next couple of weeks, making sure I reach out to our key stakeholders, introduce myself, say hi. Then it’s hopefully some sleep and start the first Monday of November!
And just lastly, you told us this story once last night – I want to hear it again. What did you do when the polls closed yesterday?
I went for an acupuncture appointment. After a long six weeks, a long day, I just… I love acupuncture. It just gives you this energy. I asked if I could book in at 8pm for a quick half-hour… I managed to get there at 8:15. At 8:45, I come home and my sister raced to the door. She’s like, ‘You’re leading the polls!’ I was like, ‘Oh!’ After acupuncture, if you’ve had a massage too, you have this nice, relaxed, jelly brain. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, thanks Abby,’ thinking that just maybe one box had been counted. Then she said, no, three of the big polls closed. So it was trying to catch up after that, it was pretty incredible.
Adrian Bell was trying to call you while you were in acupuncture.
Did you speak to him last night?
I did. He gave me a call and congratulated me on a good campaign, and I thanked him too. We’ve worked for the past six years together and he has done a lot for the city, and the other two candidates, Bob and Jerald – I thank them for putting their names in. it’s definitely not easy to not be on council and to come and put your name forward. I was at the Alternatives North debate, getting asked these questions, and it’s all these files I have been working on for the past three years so the information is on the tip of my tongue. So for Jerald and Bob, to be able to answer those questions takes a lot more research in a quick amount of time if you’re not following council diligently.
Very lastly, what does it mean to you to be the mayor of this city?
It was Sunday night that I was thinking of how it has been campaign mode, campaign mode, then you get elected and it flips. It’s not fully a new skillset to be mayor, but it’s slightly different than campaigning. It hasn’t fully sunk in but I am really honoured and humbled by the support. I can’t thank Yellowknifers enough for opening their homes, stopping me at the grocery store to talk over the past six weeks, six years. It’s been incredible to hear ideas that you’re facing this problem and people have great suggestions. We are an incredibly smart community. Sometimes we always go south for that knowledge and I think we really need to start looking here, in our own backyard, for that wealth.