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Yellowknife asked to step in as 2026 Arctic Winter Games host


Yellowknife city councillors have given a lukewarm response to a request that the city step in as an emergency Arctic Winter Games host.

Russia’s Yamal region was set to host the Games in 2026 but that was scrapped after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The NWT has consequently been moved up the rotation from 2028.

On Monday, the territorial government appeared before councillors to ask if Yellowknife is interested in taking on hosting duties for the first time since 2008.

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But led by Mayor Rebecca Alty, councillors said any excitement about hosting was tempered by an appreciation of financial realities in the NWT capital.

Told that around $5 million may need to be found at the city level – from a combination of the municipality and sponsors – Alty said that “is going to be a challenge.”

In a shot at the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which oversees both sports and municipal funding in the NWT, Alty also questioned whether the department could find its share of the funding to get a Games off the ground.

“It’ll be a challenge for the GNWT to come up with $10 million to host the Games. It could even be a challenge to find $3.5 million since every time we ask for a bit more funding for drinking water, or to properly dispose of waste and sewage and deliver recreation, they say there’s no money in the budget,” Alty said.

City staff will analyze the request and return with more information in April or May, but the mood in the room suggested it’s unlikely that Yellowknife will break its longest stretch without hosting the Arctic Winter Games since the first edition was held in 1970.

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Watch: Stunning colour footage of 1970 Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife

The city has also hosted the event in 1984, 1990, 1998 and 2008. More recently, Hay River and Fort Smith co-hosted the 2018 edition. This year’s edition – the first since 2018, thanks to Covid-19 – is in Fort McMurray.

Ultimately, Alty said, the entire Arctic Winter Games may require a rethink.

Pointing to sums the GNWT quoted for other editions – overall expenses of nearly $14 million to host the Games in Fort McMurray, almost $10 million to host next year’s edition in Alaska – the mayor (who is a past Arctic Winter Games participant) said she found it difficult to imagine that money being found in the NWT.

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“For the Games to continue, there needs to be a deep dive to get to a place where it can survive,” she said.

“All multi-sport games are getting tougher and tougher to host, because these costs are too much for taxpayers to bear.”

Economic pros and cons

At the outset of the discussion, municipal and community affairs minister Shane Thompson said Yellowknife was the only NWT host community being considered given the short turnaround time after Yamal’s plan to host the Games in 2026 evaporated.

Yamal, including its Nenets Indigenous peoples, forms one of nine participants in the Arctic Winter Games. The others are the NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik, Greenland, the Sami peoples of Scandinavia, Alaska, Yukon and northern Alberta.

The territorial government’s director of sport, recreation and youth, Gary Schauerte, said facilities had in many instances improved in Yellowknife since hosting in 2008.

The fieldhouse, for example, didn’t exist then, a new school has been built, and the city’s new aquatic centre will be in place in three years’ time. (Never mind that swimming isn’t an Arctic Winter Games sport, Schauerte said – the pool will be “an added attraction for visitors and participants.”)

Appreciating that Yellowknife would be doing the Arctic Winter Games a favour, he added, the committee that runs the Games would be open to reducing the number of sports and using multiple communities. The likes of Behchokǫ̀ and Fort Providence were mentioned, and Schauerte said he hoped Indigenous governments could become partners on a hosting committee, though he did not expect those governments to provide a financial contribution.

Quoting a study of the 2008 edition’s economic impact on Yellowknife, Schauerte said each visitor during that Games spent an average of $950 during their stay. The combined local spending of visitors and organizers was $6.6 million.

But Alty quoted a statistic of her own. In 2015, she said, aurora tourists – who would be displaced by Arctic Winter Games participants – each spent $1,300 to $1,600 per visit.

Suggesting that the city might be less wary if the NWT government said it would shoulder the financial burden, Alty added: “If the GNWT does want to host the Games in Yellowknife, I’d be happy to chat and see what they need if they want to go ahead.”

Other councillors expressed concern that Yellowknife’s accommodation, already stretched, won’t be able to readily shelter thousands of visiting athletes in 2026, even with several housing developments set to be completed in the interim. City staff, meanwhile, worry that the diamond mines are not in the same mindset they were in 2008. Diavik will not exist as an operating mine in 2026 and Ekati will be closer to the end of its life, which may limit sponsorship revenue.

The GNWT must also make the case for the Games to the city’s schools at a meeting next week, where Schauerte hopes to find a window in which schools can take spring break and allow the Games to occur.

“I would love to see this event in Yellowknife,” said Councillor Tom McLennan. “I’m sure most of us up here would. The societal benefits are very important.

“But given we live in a capitalist society, the financial impact is a major consideration.”