Yellowknife election 2022: Rob Warburton interview 

Last modified: October 3, 2022 at 7:34am


Rob Warburton is running for Yellowknife city council in the fall 2022 municipal election. Here’s a full transcript of our interview.

We asked every candidate roughly the same questions, to allow residents the chance to compare and contrast answers before placing their votes in the city’s mail-in ballot.

Questions include a little candidate background information and their thoughts on municipal taxes, housing and homelessness, climate change, reconciliation and the city’s economy.

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We also ask each candidate how they would have handled three big issues that faced councillors during the past four years: a new swimming pool for Yellowknife, a proposed university campus on Tin Can Hill, and the question of requiring proof of vaccination at city facilities during the pandemic.

Don’t forget to read our full set of candidate interviews and check the city’s website for voting information.

Polling day is October 17, though most votes are expected to have been cast by mail beforehand. Results should be available on the night of October 17.

Mayor Rebecca Alty has already been acclaimed to a second term as nobody ran against her.

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Yellowknife’s school board elections also resulted in two sets of acclamations.


This interview was recorded on August 29, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: What’s your Yellowknife background?

Rob Warburton: I originally came north after university like many folks, I originally did guiding, so on the Nahanni mostly, rafting, and then made my way to Yellowknife. I’ve been in the city about 15 years. Various jobs in that time, did the corrections thing, did a few construction jobs, those kinds of thing in your 20s. And then I started what I do now, which is Cloudworks, a real estate company set up like a social enterprise, so we do co-working and small business Incubation spaces.

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How would you describe the philosophy that would guide you as a city councillor?

I guess the philosophy would be three things. So like housing, where are people going to stay? If you want increased population and tax base, how do you build more housing? If you want increased employees for businesses, how do you get more housing? And a big one for me, which is kind-of ingrained in my entire business philosophy since I started, is how do we use what we have? The city has a ton of assets: people, infrastructure, buildings. So how do we use all these more efficiently and better? We also want to do new and shiny so I guess my philosophy will be how do we use what we have? How is it more efficient? And then we all know mines are winding down, we all hear that doom and gloom. But I’m pretty excited about the opportunity that comes with economic changes. What can we do to incentivize small, local, incremental changes to business? Supporting the big players too, as always, but how do we incentivize the small, little things we want?

What is the city’s economic future? What should a city councillor’s role be in pursuing and supporting that?

When it comes to macro-economic stuff like mines, the city has a supporting role in those developments. That’s very territorial, federal, those are kind-of big-wheelhouse things but the city needs to provide the base for those. So if there’s no good housing stock, for example, for folks to move and live and grow families here, then they won’t, and they’ll fly in and fly out. And then as you transition from these current three big mines – hopefully other mines over time come online – there are other opportunities. There’s the polytechnic coming up. How do we support that in a way that is reflective of what the city wants and what citizens want? Also realizing that that’s a huge economic boost for the whole territory, but also for Yellowknife. It’s going to be an interesting few years here as we transition. Diavik is 2025 that they are into care and maintenance so it’s coming fairly quick. This is an opportunity to shift gears and focus on other things, potentially, while still supporting the classic economic things in Yellowknife: governmen and mining.

On housing and homelessness, what should the city be doing in your view?

First off, the city has been doing some pretty great things. They’ve done street outreach, they’ve supported a lot of the non-profits, getting funds into these groups’ hands to do that. I think we can do more around the public safety side of things. We have great staff working in MED and public safety. There are pilots happening down in Fort Liard and in the Yukon. There other models we can use to repurpose and reimagine how the city handles the public safety aspect beyond traffic tickets, for example.

And then housing? When people think housing there are a couple of different angles. Where I see the city having the biggest effect is in market housing. We have a ton of homeowners in Yellowknife that have a house, they have a yard, they’re all fairly gainfully employed. So how do you incentivize them to do small, incremental things? Is it a basement suite? Is it a laneway house? These big developments we see happening in town right now, those apartment buildings, those are always going to happen and the city can incentivize those with very traditional tax incentives, land incentives, that kind of thing. But how do we make it easy and incentivize really small, incremental changes? I’ve done this with businesses in the spaces I run: how do you incubate and get a business up and running? I think you need the same thing around housing, you need to work with policies and ways to get homeowners and local owners doing one or two little things. Because over time, that adds up to a lot of housing units or to rental units.

The city just passed the new community plan and zoning bylaw. I was involved through the chamber of commerce in that role, previously, but also professionally I was personally involved with that for years, trying to get the changes in there that would allow us to do these exact things. I think housing is a big city issue. I think the city has a lot more leverage, not as a financial vessel, but we can control how and where we put these things. And we can really make it easier for people to do that. Because the demand is there. As you all know, there’s very low vacancy right now and we need a lot of housing. Relying on big projects, that’s one way, but how do we incentivize smaller, local ownership projects?

What are the next steps in reconciliation for the City of Yellowknife, do you think?

I think they’ve had a good start. They’ve done planning and programming at the city around that. Next steps? This is somewhere that I definitely need to work on, thinking about how can the city meaningfully contribute to that. They contribute land and space right now to some programs in the city. How do you make that permanent or long-term? I know some of these agreements are short, ad hoc, year to year. The city did have an employee at one point that filled that role. What assets does the city have that we can redeploy or repurpose to support reconciliation?

What should be happening to municipal taxes in Yellowknife next year?

You’ll never hear the phrase “zero-percent tax increase” come out of my mouth except right now. Inflation and increasing prices are an economic reality but the city can do a lot to mitigate that. If we build more housing, that’s more tax base. If we diversify the economy, that’s more tax base. How do we grow without growing our tax burden? Infill housing is a big thing I’ve talked about and worked on for years. That’s a great way to add tax base, decrease that pressure on tax increases. Previous councils have done zero-percent tax increases. I’ve disagreed adamantly with that because it might feel good, but you’re just punting it down the road – which we saw, right? We just saw a nine-percent tax increase, which I think was unnecessary, but this is a consequence of having low tax increases or no tax increases for a period of time. It just adds up. The idea is to mitigate that and keep that tax increase every year as low as possible. But to go to zero isn’t, I don’t think… I think people aren’t being honest if they think that’s an actual positive thing, because it’s not. You’re punting it down the road to later.

So in the circumstances, you would have supported the nine-percent increase this year?

How that was done was very interesting. The reason it was nine percent was because they changed the mill rate ratios, right? That ratio is the difference between the residential tax rate and commercial and different asset class rates Ironically, that was not what was asked for. There were a lot of options to avoid nine percent. I don’t think you could get to zero but I think it was interesting how that came about, because I don’t think you needed a nine-percent tax increase this year. You could have done things a little differently.

In all of this, is it your job as a Yellowknife city councillor to worry about climate change?

Absolutely. We’re paying for it right now. You’ve got buildings moving that weren’t moving before. You’ve got roads heaving that weren’t heaving before. Anyone who drives down to Old Town, the road going down to Old Town is yet again in need of repair. That was a very expensive, multi-million-dollar fix years ago with foam. And this is all climate change mitigation, right? It’s warming up and things are moving that didn’t move before. We definitely need to mitigate this impact, here. Energy costs are going to continue to increase. The cost of living will continue to increase. There’s an economic and environmental case here to pay attention to this and to try to mitigate it. The city is going to pay for it in infrastructure costs and that means more taxes. We can do two things at once here, we can address some climate change issues by changing policies and codes and bylaws, but also, I think, that affects the economic part of it too, long term.

Looking now at decisions the outgoing council made, would you have voted for a new swimming pool?

Yes, I would have. I know that was quite contentious due to the amount of money it was. Is it a big cost to the city? Yes. Does it mean there’s a tax burden going ahead? Yes. Was the old pool at the end of its life? Yes. You’ve got to think about attraction and retention of citizens, right? Everything is not a cost recovery model. What’s the quality of life for people that live here? I think the pool, especially in a winter city, is very important. It’s somewhere for us to go and recreate. Look at the free-for-all trying to sign up for swim lessons, if you’re a parent. If you’re not, it’s really hard to do. So more capacity is good. They’re looking at repurposing the old pool building, reusing that again. In the end it we might have more infrastructure than just a new pool.

Would you have supported a university campus on Tin Can Hill?

One hundred percent. The GNWT’s approach, to come to council with two weeks’ notice and not consult the community, essentially? I think that was frankly a bit disrespectful, and I’m not sure that was a very good way to start it. However, the city can’t dictate how a higher level of government operates. Given that decision at the time, yeah, I support the MOU and I would definitely support it on Tin Can Hill. I know it’s very contentious, there are going to be folks that are going to push back. I think in that conversation, one of the most nuanced responses was Shauna Morgan, where she acknowledged there is pressure to develop that hill, and it will be built on at some point – maybe 20 years from now or 30 years from now. But we can’t ignore that forever. So this is a good opportunity to develop in a way that is maintaining the most public access and use while developing it in a way that is beneficial to the city. At some point, it’s going to get used. There was a lot of conversation around: why don’t we built downtown? I personally invest downtown. I’m all about downtown revitalization. But we’ve tried that model, right? Aurora College has tried this downtown diversified model, and the feedback is consistently from students – you can’t ignore that, that’s your customer – they don’t like it. They don’t want it. A land-based northern campus? I think that is amazing. If we’re going to use that hill for something, I think it’s a perfect use for it. I think council does need to strongly let the GNWT know that that approach they used was not very acceptable. It needs to be more transparent and more inclusive.

This time last year, would you have voted to require proof of vaccination at city facilities?

Yes. We’re not virologists. One option maintained a low level of access for citizens. Another option increased that access. It was a horrible decision to make. It was, frankly, I think, horrible to have that put on city councillors and municipalities in general to make these decisions. I think the territorial government should have owned that more. The option of requiring proof of vaccination meant more access for people. Given a situation where there is more access to the public or less, I would pick the one with more access. I know that got into a very weedy conversation around vaccines and ethics and a bunch of other things. But given those two choices, I think the choice that was made in the end was the right one. It gave more people that pay taxes more access to the facilities. The rest was a conversation that was not within the municipal scope, I guess. But it was a weird time. We got into some pretty weird things.

Anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?

I’m pretty excited to run for council. I’ve been working on civic issues and been involved in various ways for years. I’m excited to try a different angle, to be in a position where I see a little more behind the scenes. I know things are always simple when you’re looking in but they’re always more weedy when you’re in there. I’m really excited to run for council and, if I can get in, see what I can effect, especially around these things we’ve talked about. I think there’s a lot more the city can be doing for a lot of these issues. I’d love to bring those ideas to council.

More: Rob Warburton’s candidate Facebook page.

Head back to the interview list here.