Ben Hendriksen 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 20, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What’s your Yellowknife background?
Ben Hendriksen: First of all, thanks for having me. I moved to Yellowknife in 2011. I’m originally from Niagara, in Ontario. I moved to BC for a few years and did my masters at Simon Fraser University, then came up north to work as a policy analyst. I’d been doing policy and governance work from 2011 to 2017 and then moved over to Dublin, Ireland for four years. My now-wife wanted had to go back to school and that meant we had to leave Yellowknife. After she had finished that and had a couple of years of teaching under her belt overseas, we decided we wanted to come home. We moved back to Yellowknife and now I’m back in the public service here. I really think that there’s a chance for me to bring some of that public service experience, but also my advocacy and lobbying work that I did overseas, I think that will really be of benefit to council going forward.
How would you describe the kind of philosophy you think you’d bring to city council?
I’m not running on one or two issues. I think one of the key things that I want to bring to council is a very clear, open mind toward public policy-making, governance, public engagement, and really bringing accountability to decisions. And I’m sure we’ll get into some of the issues that are currently going on, that really pulled me into this race. But really just keeping an open mind, really challenging what the expected outcomes are supposed to be and what the “normal” way of thinking is within City Hall. And that’s no fault of anybody. They’re doing great work. But it’s always tricky. You get a little groupthink and I want to be that outside voice. And I’ve done a lot of that work. Anybody who knows me knows the policy and governance work. And then as I said, overseas, I was doing lobbying and advocacy where literally my entire job was to pick apart government policies and find flaws in the system.
Let’s look at tax rates. What should be happening to municipal tax rates next year?
It’s a tricky one in the sense that the city has already kind-of committed through last year’s tax rates to what’s going to happen this year. I’ll be a voice on council definitely challenging that for sure. We’re in a tough world economically, never mind in Yellowknife and the NWT. I don’t know all the budgeting factors yet. That’ll be something that the new council gets into during orientation. But what I would definitely bring is a voice saying: what are the necessary things we absolutely need to be tackling right now? We already have huge capital infrastructure projects on the books, we really shouldn’t be adding to any of those at the moment. So what are the key structural things that we need to be dealing with? And make sure that taxes only have to rise as much as absolutely possible. Which they probably will, let’s be honest,
What is the economic future of the city of Yellowknife? And what can city council do to support that vision?
The economic future of the NWT is always going to be related to resource development, let’s be frank, at least in the very long term and medium term. We’re an economy that has been built on that. And whether it’s the NWT government, Indigenous governments, that’s clearly a focus of everybody. So one of the things the city can do to support that industry is making sure that there’s housing available for workers – you know, not providing the housing but making sure of the property tax system and the land available. The current footprint of the city, I think, already has the space available. There’s a lot of dead property in the city. So making sure that workers have a place to live, supporting the industry from that perspective. There’s also the polytechnic university that the NWT is now supporting. I think the future of education is going to be a huge factor in the NWT. There are a lot of things that need to be looked at for that: we can look at Yukon University for their successes, but also a lot of their failures that they’ve had and challenges that they’ve had. But I think those are really the two key places. I mean, the public service is always going to be a big part of our economy too, at least in the very medium term.
Extending your thoughts on where workers are going to be able to live, what role do you think the city has in homelessness in Yellowknife?
The city has an incredibly important role. One, they have a homelessness strategy in place. The challenge there is very little has been done because of lack of resources. The ideas are great and they’re on paper. The challenge is implementation and that comes down to that lobbying and advocacy background that I have. That’s a lot of work that has to be done with the territorial government and the feds. So I think that’s the big thing that the city can do. It also can work with organizations that are in the city already doing a lot of work on the ground with homelessness. One of the things that I’ve been doing in the last few days is reaching out to organizations throughout the city, who – kind-of surprisingly to me – have said I’m either the first candidate this round, or ever, who has ever reached out to them. I’m trying to meet with them so that I can learn about what their issues are, what they’re doing on the ground that maybe we don’t hear about in the news, and the ideas they have, because they’re the ones who are actually working with people who are without a home.
What we need to be doing is listening to the people who are without a home, who work with them, and finding out what those solutions are. And then chasing the money from the feds and the territorial government, which I know is always a challenge. But we need to be honest with people that that is the barrier. And when a failure in the system happens at city level, we need to be honest about where the roadblock is – so if you want to see change, work with city council, work with the city in order to get those funds.
What would you like the next steps to be in reconciliation for the City of Yellowknife?
One of the reasons that I did decide to finally throw my hat in the ring – I’d been thinking about it for a bit, I have had friends for years telling me I should do this – was the city’s recent event on reconciliation. That was what I hope is the first in a lot of conversations that happen around reconciliation. As the governor general said when she was appointed, this is not a tick-box exercise. This is an ongoing, forever conversation, daily life, trying to make sure that we’re all doing better. And so to me, the city needs to commit to continuing that conversation. And all councillors need to commit to continuing that conversation with each other and with the YKDFN and other Indigenous governments who have citizens in Yellowknife. It needs to be more than just an annual conversation. And it needs to be something where we listen more than talk, which is hard to explain in an interview where all I’m doing is having to talk.
To what extent is it city council’s responsibility to be factoring climate change into all the decisions you’re making?
Anyone who knows me knows that me and my wife don’t own a vehicle. So we sometimes have to pinch a vehicle from our friends. And one of the big reasons we do that – we’re very frugal, and that’s a hint also for my way of thinking when it comes to council, but we’re also very conscious of the way that the world is going right now and the challenges around that. In terms of city planning, I think there are a lot of things that the city can do in terms of strategy and planning related to making sure that any future changes to streets – having bike lanes, having sidewalks that are an appropriate size for the number of people that should be walking, not necessarily who are walking – making sure that we plan in a way that makes people want to commute outside their vehicle. In building regulations, that people are incentivized to actually take action on climate and don’t feel like it’s more of a burden to take action than it is to not take action.
I don’t think there’s any way that we have the ability to do big capital projects right now. Years ago, there was talk of doing geothermal changes like heating systems across the city. Unless the feds or the territorial government came to us with money in order to do that, I don’t think that’s a realistic option right now. So I wouldn’t make that a big pitch right now. I think it’s really small, baby-step things that the city can do in terms of planning and regulation. And then, really, we need to make this a livable city where people want to commute by foot, by bike, by scooter, by whatever other forms of transportation. It’s also the way that you get to know your neighbours in the city, by actually walking on the street and saying hi to people. I know that sounds ridiculous and sort-of charming, but that’s one of the benefits to living in Yellowknife.
And then just in terms of urban agriculture, we have a great farmers’ market but there’s a lot more potential. Businesses in town have been amazing in terms of starting this up: you know, Bush Order and then France Benoit’s business out in Kam Lake. There’s more urban agriculture growing and there’s a lot of incentives from the feds to do this kind of work. And as the grandson of Dutch immigrants who definitely were in the agricultural field, I have a lot of that knowledge and background about ways that even in a cold climate like us, we could take advantage of the space that we have to make agriculture more sustainable in the North.
A few questions based on decisions that the outgoing council has faced over the past four years. Would you have voted for a new swimming pool?
Personally, I voted no on the referendum. Selfishly, I don’t have children so it wasn’t a factor for me. I know that it’s a big factor for a lot of my friends who did vote yes.
As a councillor, what would you have done?
As a councillor, I would have voted no on it. I did vote no and I would have done the same on it in a council position. I think it’s important, too, to have contradictory views on council sometimes. Votes don’t always have to be unanimous. You can be cordial and you can be supportive of each other in the work that you’re doing. But sometimes it’s good to have a contrary voice or two in final votes, because that represents what’s actually going on in the city. The city isn’t always in the same position. So I think that’s important.
Speaking of votes that were not unanimous – this time last year, would you have voted to require proof of vaccination in city facilities?
Yes, I would have. This one would have been a tough one for sure. I had friends on both sides of that conversation. I think Councillor Williams actually was really good. He was the sort-of final deciding vote last year. He made it pretty clear what the struggle and the challenge was. But ultimately, you had community organizations who were having to do that work already, because they had made a decision. So it wasn’t really fair to put it on those people in order to make those choices. It was a tough call but I think, ultimately, that’s where people’s heads were at at the time. And I think the city was good in also removing them as quickly as possible once it seemed like the emergency, for lack of a better term, had stepped back.
And would you have supported a university campus on Tin Can Hill?
Personally, no. Always open to being convinced otherwise, and this is still not a done deal. Personally, at this point, I would not be open to it. My reason being – back to the sustainability question – I think there’s a lot of dead land in the footprint of the city as it is. I don’t think we should necessarily be bulldozing down a very beautiful location right on the edge of the lake. If you look at Yukon University, it’s a big parking lot. And I know a lot of councillors said, “Oh, we’re going to make sure that it fits in with the biology of the area.” But ultimately, you’re going to bulldoze the trees, you’re going to blast the rock and it’s going to be a big parking lot with more buildings, with transportation needs for students on bus systems that are already under-utilized, which is a whole other issue that if we wanted to talk about another day, we could talk about.
So that’s my personal view right now. But I am open to be convinced. One of the big things that I mentioned at the start was we really need to be challenging City Hall, yes, but also the GNWT, the people who come to council in order to make a pitch, and say: you can’t just come with one option. Or you can’t come with half-stories. If I’m going to approve something, I need to know that I’m comfortable and can explain to Yellowknifers why I voted to do something.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m somebody who’s extremely passionate about Yellowknife, who’s extremely passionate about issues – as I hope has come across during this conversation. I’m going to be somebody who’s going to have a critical eye on what’s happening but in a supportive way. It’s something that I’ve put in some of the literature that I’ve put out already: I want to be challenging but I also want to celebrate the successes when they happen. And I think one of the reasons Mayor Alty has now been acclaimed is because that’s the way she operates, whether or not I agree with her on everything. There are plenty of issues we’ve talked about today where I probably would have disagreed. But there’s something about her leadership style that I appreciate, which is that you can challenge things, you can bring issues to the table, but ultimately, you’re going to celebrate the things when they go well, too.