The owner of a Yellowknife funeral home hopes to open the NWT’s only crematorium in the near future as legislative and municipal obstacles slowly subside.
At the moment, families in the territory wishing to cremate a loved one must send them south for the process to take place. Aside from the emotional strain, that journey costs a considerable extra sum.
“It will be less expensive, immediately,” said Janice McKenna, owner of Yellowknife’s McKenna Funeral Home.
“It would immediately provide a better service for the families,” McKenna told Cabin Radio. “I don’t have to contract south, I don’t have to contract airlines, I wouldn’t have to provide a container. There are a lot of associated costs that would not be on the final invoice.
“This industry is expensive – it’s expensive to operate. But with respect to providing cremations in the NWT, it will cost less, for sure.”
On average, around 250 people die in the Northwest Territories in any given year.
“The demand for cremation is about to 30 to 40 deaths,” said Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer. “So that’s not insignificant.”
However, until recently, there were simply no rules governing cremation. It was not that cremation in the NWT was illegal – it just wasn’t mentioned in any legislation.
Getting a municipal development permit can be tough for an activity about which the law is silent. McKenna has spent years lobbying for cremation to receive some form of legal recognition, so she can acquire a permit and open a crematorium.
“I have been waiting for the green light for a long time,” she said. “I can actually cremate right now in the Northwest Territories but, in order to get a development permit with the City of Yellowknife, I have to be approved through their department. And they said they wouldn’t start on that until they heard from the GNWT.”
In 2017, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly introduced a private member’s bill at the legislature which tweaked the Public Health Act to clarify that cremation was permitted in the territory. But even then, no regulations existed to actually set out how crematoriums should be created and run.
Only last month did those regulations finally appear.
“We didn’t have any legislative framework around cremation,” said Stacy Ridgely, the senior policy officer who led development of the regulations for the territorial government.
“There was pressure, political pressure, to have this done,” she said. “The minister [at the time] committed to it and we went forward from that.”
The regulations are only short – several pages of straightforward guidelines on topics like permitting and safety – but they remove a significant hurdle facing McKenna’s plan to open a crematorium.
Now, all McKenna needs is for the City of Yellowknife to figure out how to licence crematoriums within its boundaries, then give her permission to go ahead.
That, however, may still take time.
The City needs to change its zoning bylaw to allow construction of a crematorium. Changing the bylaw requires council’s involvement and a public hearing.
Kerry Penney, the city’s director of policy, communications, and economic development, said four months was a reasonable estimate for any change to the bylaw – but it could take longer.
“Do we allow crematoriums in residential areas, or business, commercial?” said Penney, listing one of the considerations city councillors will need to assess. McKenna Funeral Home is located in a predominantly residential area on Forrest Drive.
“I can’t commit to how quickly the department can bring forward a change to committee … they have been short-staffed and don’t have a new planning director hired,” said Penney, referring to the recent departure of planning director Nalini Naidoo, who has relocated with her family.
Even allowing for some time to clear City Hall, McKenna could conceivably receive the all-clear some time in 2020.
“I want you to know that I’m ready. I’m absolutely ready to offer this service to families who need it,” she said.
If and when she receives a permit, McKenna intends to operate a form of cremation dubbed aquamation – seen by some as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional incineration.
“Rather than incineration, it would be done with a water-based system. It has little to no effect on the climate, our environment,” McKenna claimed. “That’s my hope, to use this type of system so there are no emissions into the air and the effluent is nil to our water table.
“I like to think that I have our environment in mind when I work this industry,” she said. “I think this is better for our environment. It’s less intrusive, it’s not fire.”
Penney, at the City, said the form of cremation used would be assessed by staff as they decide how to proceed with permitting.
“We’ll have to look at the ways and what the City might permit,” Penney said. “With liquefying, we have to take into consideration any effect that might have on our water.”
McKenna believes allowing cremation to take place in Yellowknife, whenever that happens, will benefit many families.
“It’s not the easiest thing to talk about. People don’t want to talk about death, or cremation for that matter,” she said.
“It’s not easy, but it is something we have to do, and I’m very proud we have this service here in Yellowknife.”