Tom McLennan 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.
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.
This interview was recorded on September 6, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What’s your Yellowknife background?
Tom McLennan: I’m originally from Ontario. I moved up in the spring of 2016 originally to get a job as a pilot and start a career as a pilot. I’m from a similar sized, 20,000-person very outdoors town, two hours north of Toronto. And so Yellowknife immediately felt like home. I fell in love right away. The pilot thing has taken off, I’ve met a girl, and super-excited about the future here and excited to raise kids. And we’re getting a puppy in November. So yeah, it’s good times ahead.
Congratulations on the puppy. If you were elected, how would you describe the philosophy that would guide you as a city councillor?
I like to think about the big picture and see how things work together, try not to create unintended consequences and see what is best for everyone. I think in politics, sometimes, some people are forgotten. So I think it’s important to remember how our policies affect lower-income people, Indigenous people. And a big thing for me is how to get people to stay in Yellowknife. I’ve had friends who have left. So a big thing for me would be: how do we create more reasons for people to stay and put down roots here?
Speaking of which, what do you think the economic future of Yellowknife looks like? Where should the city be focusing some of that energy?
I think the university is big, tourism as well. There are definitely going to be some difficult choices to make in the coming years with Diavik closing and the future of Ekati up in the air. The university is a big one, the knowledge economy is huge. I think that could be a big economic driver in the future. And I worked for Ahmic Air for three summers and could really see the difference, the summer before Covid and then without tourism. That was growing until Covid. Helping tourist operators however we can, having more infrastructure, would really help them. An art gallery, different things that are really accessible to tourists that they can just wander around and check out? There is some of that, but more of that as well.
What should be happening to municipal taxes next year?
So that’s an interesting one. I wrote a letter to the editor and was a bit frustrated about that. Number one, there’s a policy about the percentage in the general fund of expenditures, and the policy is 10 to 15 percent. That’s been double or triple the last few years. So I’d like to see that policy being followed, just to make sure they’re not collecting more taxes than the city needs. Another one is to set a policy about mill rate ratios. The chamber of commerce sort-of came forward and said they wanted any sort of policy to be articulated so they could understand how the decisions were made. But we sort-of got a one-off decision. I would love to see a formulated policy so residents and business owners can understand how those decisions are made and predict how they will be made.
In all of that work, is it the job of a city councillor to worry about climate change?
I think it’s the job of everyone to worry about climate change and do what we can, especially in the North. I think we already do and will feel that effect. And I think in terms of university, there are some really awesome opportunities there to really be a proving ground for some different technologies, bring in research dollars. And I think the city needs to be involved in that, it needs to be involved in local food production. Those are things that are important to residents and are difficult issues here and can be really effectively addressed locally. So I think the city definitely needs to be involved in solutions to climate change.
Housing is usually considered a territorial and a federal issue. That’s where a lot of the money comes from. What’s the city’s role in that?
That’s a big one too. Luckily or not, there are a bunch of projects on the go right now. We need housing right now but we’ll see some of that in a year or two, so there’s some relief coming there. In terms of what the city can do, you’re right, it is more of a territorial issue and it’s important to make sure the city doesn’t take on too much. But in terms of incentivizing affordable housing, like non-market, affordable housing, especially downtown, I think the city can do a lot there. There are a few properties downtown where the city can provide whatever it is and make connections to try to push developers to make those developments and to make them at a capped rent so that they are really affordable housing. It’s a balance and it requires a lot of research, and considering how everything relates to each other. I think the city does have a role but at the same time needs to be careful that it doesn’t take on too much.
When you talk about the city pushing developers to build more housing, to make it affordable, what kind of levers are we talking about to do that pushing?
To incentivize it, either through offsetting taxes or providing grants, basically. To change the economic model for developers so that they can make a profit with less rent coming in. The issue with infill is that the land is very expensive. So if any of that land is owned by the city – the 50/50 lot – they could sell that land at a discount or at a cost recovery price in order to make it more feasible for developers to do affordable housing. I would have to look into more specifics about incentivizing property taxes. I know downtown, there are some things. But basically find ways to make the economics work for developers.
What do you think the next steps in reconciliation should be for the City of Yellowknife?
I think it’s huge to have that conversation. It was great, last week at the reconciliation event on Wednesday, to have those conversations. It’s a big topic and it’s tough to really find immediate, concrete things. But it’s about really having a partnership with Indigenous people, having them feel like they are a part of the process and helping to lead that process. Listening and not telling them what we think are good steps. It’s listening to what they need and taking that into account and making policies and decisions around that.
Looking at decisions the outgoing council made, would you have voted for a new swimming pool?
Yes. And I did vote in the referendum for that. I’ve heard some people talk about location. I would have done some more research if I was in that position. But yes. There was federal money available for a new pool. There was not federal money available for a renovation of a pool. This is frustrating, this is how government works. If I had my choice, I probably would have tried to renovate the pool in some way. But it’s not possible with that federal money and the federal money is there for a new pool. I think it’s important that we have that facility, especially with all the lakes around us. We need kids to learn how to swim, we need adults to learn how to swim. So with the pool coming towards end of life, it was important to me that there was a new one, and that’s where the money is going to come to build it.
Would you have supported a university campus on Tin Can Hill?
I would have agreed with the memorandum of understanding. Again, if it were up to me, I would have the university downtown. But that isn’t where the GNWT seems to want it. It’s a shame that the GNWT went about this process in this way. I know some residents who are very concerned and felt quite blindsided. For me, it’s important to get a university built. And it’s my opinion is that the GNWT seems to be pretty keen on Tin Can Hill. Fighting with them about it might delay or endanger the project. That being said, it’s crucial to me that public access be maintained, trail infrastructure be maintained, and residents’ concerns be heard. They don’t feel like they have been, and so we need to do that and try to incorporate some of those concerns. And now the city needs to be rezoned to do that, so the city has control here. It’d be a public hearing, and we can really make sure it’s a decision that benefits the community and that particular area.
This time last year, would you have voted to require proof of vaccination at city facilities?
I spoke to city council in support of that. That is another one where we live in a world of defined choices and the choice there was between 100 people being able to access the facility with vaccine mandates or 25 without. The population at the time in Yellowknife was 87-percent vaccinated. I very much understand individuals being cautious or choosing not to get vaccinated. But in terms of thinking about the bigger picture, in the city in general, not having vaccine mandates would have limited access to many more people than having them. And that’s a difficult choice. It would be awesome if we could just wave our hands and come up with ideal answers. But a lot of times we can’t. And in that difficult choice, I would support vaccine mandates.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m super-excited about about the future in Yellowknife. I’m really grateful to the community about what it’s given me and the opportunities I’ve had here, the people I’ve met. It’s a fantastic place to live. I love it.