The Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association is asking the City of Yellowknife to hand over land in Kam Lake for free, describing an ambition to make the area “dog mushing central.”
The association made the request to councillors on Monday. The land at 191 Curry Drive houses 250 sled dogs and has been a communal lot since the mushers moved there in 1978.
The association is coming to the end of a two-year extension on a 10-year lease with the City. However, the broader issue of where to put the mushers has been ongoing for four decades.
Staff at City Hall say the lot should cost several hundred thousand dollars, a price the Dog Trotters say they cannot pay. Councillors’ options include granting the land for free, setting a price for it, or extending the current lease.
A plan several years ago to move the mushers to the Engle Business District has since been scrapped amid intense opposition.
Jordee Reid, president of the association, made an at-first tearful and impassioned plea for the City to grant the land as an act of reconciliation.
“This issue affects my family, my sense of place and connection to my grandparents, and my identity as an Indigenous person,” she told councillors.
Mushers Ernie and Alexis Campbell, Angela James, and Scott McQueen stood beside her as she presented to council.
“I know this is similar for all the other dog mushers that are standing behind me,” she said.
Reid drew a connection between the history of dog mushing in Yellowknife and the history of colonization.
She described mushers keeping dogs in their back yards into the 1940s and 50s, before the then-Town of Yellowknife decided to move the dogs to a Niven Lake lot in the 1960s.
“It was really a shitty move, excuse my language, as the first dog lot was close to the sewage lagoon in Niven Lake. It was out of sight, out of mind,” she said.
As the town grew, the dog lot was again moved in 1978. “Another lagoon, another undesirable location, another shitty move,” Reid said about the relocation to Kam Lake. “We were promised the sled dogs would never have to be moved again.”
A city map shows the property at 191 Curry Drive in Kam Lake.
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett, responding to a question from Councillor Robin Williams about that statement, said: “It’s really difficult for us to know what kind of promises were made,
“In saying that, we don’t question what the collective memory is of the Dog Trotters.”
Reid said the mushers had invested heavily in drainage, insulation for dog houses, fences to limit noise, and an extensive trail network.
An ‘act of reconciliation’
Referencing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Reid said the relocation of the dog lot – the “broken promises” and “lack of meaningful consultation” – mirrored Canada’s history of colonization.
The Dog Trotters are not an explicitly Indigenous organization but, Reid said, the majority of members are Indigenous and many are from the Akaitcho region. Giving the association the request land fits the City’s plan to develop a reconciliation action plan, she said.
Reid described the 2017 plan to relocate the mushers to the Engle Business District as an “oppressive and outrageous” consultation experience – one that was ultimately abandoned in favour of a two-year lease extension in Kam Lake.
But she said the relationship with the City, once “authoritarian and confrontational,” had become “positive and proactive.”
City staff, however, say handing over the lot for free could establish a difficult precedent.
Instead, they recommend selling the property for just under $300,000 – its appraised value of $360,000 minus development costs so far incurred by the association, which planning and development director Nalini Naidoo estimated at $67,500.
Councillors can, however, exercise their discretion and further reduce the price as the Dog Trotters are a society. For example, Habitat for Humanity recently received free land on which to build a home.
Reid said the City’s suggested price is impossible for the Dog Trotters to meet. She estimated the annual cost of running the Kam Lake dog lot, with 250 dogs, to be $153,750.
“City council could very easily price this traditional cultural lifestyle out of existence,” said Reid.
Neighbour Peter Curran, who spoke before Reid, opposes the sale of the lot to the Dog Trotters.
A resident of 159 Kam Lake Road, some 200 metres from the dog lot, Curran – a longtime opponent of keeping the dogs in Kam Lake – said the animals “are kept outdoors throughout the year [and] create considerable noise, smell, waste, and safety impacts.”
He said: “Given the nature of the dogs, and how they’re kept, the dogs are hypersensitive to external stimuli.”
Musher Ernie Campbell said the association has worked on mitigating those impacts. A fence installed along two-thirds of the lot could be extended, he said, and – when possible – mushers could commit to feeding their dogs by 10pm.
Curran said he wants to see a “collaborative, phased transition” of the Dog Trotters to a more suitable location. Kam Lake itself has been in transition, Curran added, to an area which he feels can no longer support the number of kennels which existed there in the past.
“It continues to be a thriving mixed-use area, but one that has become more sensitive to high-impact uses from the past,” he said.
Councillor Niels Konge, who was on council when dog lots were deemed an incompatible use in Kam Lake, said he did not support the move to the Engle Business District – but also could not support any expansion in Kam Lake.
“Big dog lots are an incompatible use in Kam Lake,” said Konge. “We went through a lot of public consultation that said that. And since that public consultation we’ve had Grace Lake North and Grace Lake South. There’s, like, 108 lots on that side of the lake.”
Another lease extension?
Bassi-Kellett, the city administrator, said staff understand the pressures faced by dog mushers and are planning to include the issue in a community plan now undergoing a review.
“We don’t have land identified at this time that we would be able to share. But the community plan that will come forward plans on acknowledging this and seeing what kind of future use, in areas, there can be for mushing,” she said.
Bassi-Kellett reiterated the City’s wish to keep the Dog Trotters on the land in question.
Councillor Steve Payne asked whether the Yellowknives Dene First Nation had come forward in support of the association, or whether expansion could become easier once the Akaitcho Agreement is signed.
Angela James, one of the mushers present, replied that the association’s focus remained on acquiring the Kam Lake land at no cost.
“We need to settle the claim, this communal lot … and then, from there, we will continue to develop the world of dog mushing,” James said.
Konge suggested the association look at a “huge chunk” of land in the area near Kam Lake which has been identified as part of the Akaitcho Agreement land withdrawal. That land is not the City’s to rule upon.
Several councillors grappled with how to square the demands of the Dog Trotters with the needs and wants of other Yellowknife residents.
“The question is whether reconciliation requires the City to essentially subsidize the land sale to the Dog Trotters,” Councillor Shauna Morgan said.
“What we’re talking about is whether the citizens of Yellowknife, both our Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, must 100-percent subsidize the cost of buying this land fee-simple.”
Morgan said she wants to see the discussion continue.
Konge suggested a further two-year extension to the lease, giving the City time to finish its community plan – which could then be used as the basis for a more permanent decision.
Council will now consider that option, instead of going ahead with the sale, at an August 26 meeting.