A pile of snow on a downtown Yellowknife street as crews work to clear the roads. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife’s “freakish” snow dump finished just days before budget deliberations begin. It was a ton of snow – but is it enough for the city to change its spending?
And more broadly, is this a sign that the city’s climate is changing sufficiently to warrant a new approach to snow clearing and removal, or could Yellowknife waste money with a knee-jerk reaction?
Councillors discussed those concerns on Monday night as Yellowknife recovers from a week that saw sustained snowfall render some streets and sidewalks impassable. City crews, scrambling day and night to clear what they could, were joined by contractors over the weekend in a race to reach every street.
More snow has already fallen in Yellowknife this winter (98.9 cm) than in the entire winters of 2020 (92.3 cm) or 2021 (74.3 cm) – though those were two of the city’s driest on record.
By this stage last year, only 14.9 cm of snow had been recorded.
So what does the city do in next year’s budget? Push more money into snow removal in case a winter of 2022 happens again, or keep things as they are in case a winter of 2021 happens again? Or is there another way?
“With climate change and the potential for winters bringing heavier snow, we need to ensure that we are not caught again in future years,” said Councillor Ben Hendriksen at Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t believe we should be reactionary in Budget 2023 and overcommit resources for next year in response to one event. But at the same time, we need to work with our environmental partners to understand these future forecasts based on a changing climate.”
Earlier in the evening, councillors had received a presentation from the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce urging council to find cost-saving measures that would bring next year’s taxes down as residents and businesses struggle.
Changing the way the city responds to snow – for example, by budgeting more money for early-season snow removal next year, just in case – could counteract that and cost more, not less.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city manager, said this year’s “freakishly extraordinary dump of snow” merited a “real analysis of the risk” and what the city is prepared to budget for, versus the extent to which it is willing to wait and see.
“This time last year we were having the exact opposite problem, because we didn’t have enough snow and ground cover,” she said.
“Frost was getting down into our pipes, causing a lot of problems without that insulating layer of snow.”
Yet this year’s “heavy, wet” snow, Bassi-Kellett said, is not the typical Yellowknife snow that can be swept away with a broom.
“Things are changing. We do need to look at what climate change is doing to the amount of snow that we’re getting, the type of snow we’re getting, and how we respond.”
New approach to accumulation?
Changes the city could make go beyond the top-line figure for snow removal in next year’s budget.
Some city councillors raised the issue of how City Hall communicates with residents, while public works director Chris Greencorn said the city could better react to rapid snow accumulation.
“One of the gaps we’re looking at right now is the rate of accumulation and how quickly it came at us this year,” Greencorn told councillors.
The city, he said, initially did not bring in third-party contractors to help, not least because those contractors often have obligations to other clients and can’t drop everything to join in.
But by Friday – at which point Bassi-Kellett said Yellowknife “crossed a threshold,” with emergency vehicles getting stuck – the city began hiring contractors.
How the city handles that conversation in future could change, Greencorn said, and a new policy could guide how quickly the city ramps up its response.
“We could look at something like: if there’s 50 centimetres of snow that accumulates over a one-week period, perhaps we engage third-party contractors to get ahead of it,” he said.
“Me and my team will be looking at that to see if we can make at least some contemplation, in our processes, for a quick rate of accumulation.”
‘Off my Christmas card list’
As councillors thanked city staff for their hard work to clear the streets, some also queried the city’s communications approach over the past week.
“We really need to be better at communicating quickly,” said Hendriksen.
“People are patient, but they’re only patient when they know that something’s happening. Whether we all like it or not, an absence of information leads to speculation and hearsay.
“Some people will never be happy with what they hear. I know that, we all know that. But for most people, all they want is some information.”
Councillor Ryan Fequet, describing the “anger and confusion of many residents,” asked what lessons could be learned at City Hall.
Bassi-Kellett defended the city’s approach.
“Communication is an art. It’s hard to make it a science, sometimes. And I think we really do strive to get the best possible comms out,” she said.
“We had put messaging out on social media and I think that people didn’t necessarily see it as much until, wow, it was in their driveway.”
The city manager also expressed concern that so many residents had been “jumping on the bandwagon with comments that were full of vitriol” as snow continued to fall and clog streets, a point with which Councillor Steve Payne concurred.
“I think we could have written everything down on a Starbucks cup and hand-delivered them to these people and they would still be pissed off,” Payne said.
“I don’t know what more we can do. I don’t think we have a communications issue. I think we have a behaviour issue with some people in Yellowknife. The public needs to realize that every stupid comment that’s made on social media, it’s our workers that see it. And it’s the workers’ kids that see it.
“It’s not all Yellowknifers. This is just a small few, but I expected more from them. And they’re probably going to be off my Christmas card list.”