Yellowknife's dog mushers may gradually acquire their Kam Lake land using a novel form of payment plan, councillors ruled, in a decision that appeared to almost settle a decades-long debate.
A system of payments over time, proposed by Councillor Shauna Morgan, seeks to balance the mushers' request to receive the land for free with the City of Yellowknife's concern about the precedent that would set.
Virtually no details about the plan are set, from its overall value to its length. Mushers will now enter negotiations with the City, which means there is a chance the deal could yet break down.
But Jordee Reid of the Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association – which represents the mushers – described a "huge sigh of relief" when councillors voted in favour of the payment plan, with only Cllr Niels Konge opposing.
"The Dog Trotters have been in limbo for over a decade," Reid told Cabin Radio.
"Negotiations are key but we have a really good working relationship with city administration, and I feel confident that we can figure something out."
The association houses 250 sled dogs on land at 191 Curry Drive, which has been a communal lot since the mushers moved there in 1978.
Some neighbours feel the mushers' presence is incongruous in a mixed-use, partly residential area. One, Peter Curran, twice in two months told councillors the dogs generate "considerable noise, smell, waste, and safety impacts."
The mushers, however, argue they were promised the land decades ago and should not be forced to move elsewhere.
The argument over their future has continued under those basic terms for many years but, on Monday, appeared at last to near some form of conclusion.
'Honour and integrity'
Earlier in the summer, the Dog Trotters had asked councillors to grant the Kam Lake land to the mushers at no cost as an "act of reconciliation."
However, councillors had expressed reservations about the message that would send to other organizations in a similar position.
"The question is whether reconciliation requires the City to essentially subsidize the land sale to the Dog Trotters," Morgan said last month.
"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."
Reluctant to pursue that option, councillors instead were preparing – for the second time in recent years – to offer a two-year extension to the mushers' land lease, buying more time for discussion to continue.
Yet on Monday, Morgan arrived with a new plan.
Instead of continually postponing a decision, she urged the City to come up with a payment plan allowing the Dog Trotters to gradually purchase the land over time.
Morgan's proposal found immediate favour with most councillors.
"Honour and integrity are two words that come up for me when talking about this city and why I wanted to be part of the council," said Cllr Stacie Smith in response.
"Honour and integrity come to mind thinking back 40 years, when the Dog Trotters were promised something. I wouldn't want to be part of a community that doesn't honour promises."
Cllr Julian Morse said: "It's time to finally give everybody involved in this some peace, whether they like or don't like the decision. Then we can move forward."
Konge, dissenting, said the decision overrode earlier city planning for the Kam Lake area "in one fell swoop."
"I will have multiple enquiries from the folks in Kam Lake wondering if they can once again purchase lots in Kam Lake to run facilities for animals, put in tank farms, operate transportation facilities – all these uses for Kam Lake that were changed in 2015," said Konge.
"There were a bunch of changes back in 2015 that, based on tonight's decision, warrant reconsideration in terms of fairness for the community."
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett acknowledged City Hall "does not have a plan" to communicate Monday's decision to residents of the area, having only just received direction from councillors.
"I think Cllr Konge is fully appreciative of the workload that is before administration right now. This is very important to communicate with residents and we'll certainly see what the next steps need to be," she said.
A payment plan, when negotiated, is expected to include stipulations asking the mushers to make various improvements to the property, such as better fencing and drainage.
Reid said the mushers would be keen to make those improvements anyway if they have more certainty over the land.
"I make the comparison of renting versus owning, you look at it differently," she told Cabin Radio. "Leasing it, we didn't know how much money we should invest in the dog lot when it comes to things like fixing things. Now we can really put some work into our lot."
The payment plan will, though, still require the mushers to come up with a significant sum of money to cover the cost of the land, which is set at its appraised value minus the cost of development that has already taken place.
It's not clear what sum the City and mushers will arrive at. If no agreement can be found, the mushers may yet walk away from the process.
Right now, the mushers collectively pay lease fees of between $6,000 and $7,000 per year, Reid said, stressing their industry does not generate much profit. However, she is optimistic a payment plan that works can be agreed.
"Even if it's just so we don't have to go back to council chambers," she said, with a sigh, after two appearances before council in the past month. "It's so emotionally exhausting. It means so much to us."