The NWT government declared a local state of emergency in Yellowknife on Friday, using it to repurpose an empty downtown building as a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The Mine Rescue Building, rejected by city councillors as a day shelter location in August, will now be co-opted by the NWT government using pandemic-related emergency powers.
Turning the building – which most recently housed the SideDoor youth support program – into a shelter will provide more capacity this winter.
“It actually needs very little in the way of renovation or retrofit. We’re hopeful it will be a matter of just a few days before it’s operational,” said Sara Chorostkowski, the Department of Health and Social Services’ director of mental wellness and addictions recovery.
A temporary shelter is needed because the existing shelter on 50 Street is operating at a reduced capacity owing to Covid-19 public health restrictions. The territory estimates 40 people have been displaced as a result.
The Mine Rescue Building will provide room for 20 people, the NWT government said, without directly explaining what might then happen to the remaining 20 according to its math.
Friday’s announcement appears to conclude what had been an increasingly frantic search for a place to put a temporary day shelter this winter.
The territorial government confirmed it will now abandon a controversial plan to use a warehouse opposite a high school, and the City of Yellowknife will no longer pursue creating its own temporary structure.
Why emergency was declared
The territory’s use of emergency powers represents a significant shift in approach.
Julie Green, the territory’s health minister, said the request to use emergency powers had come from the City of Yellowknife and was fully supported by cabinet ministers.
“While there are many issues that keep me awake at night, this issue has been top of mind,” said Green.
Earlier in the week, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola had resisted using her own set of emergency powers – provided by the Public Health Act during the pandemic – to intervene.
Kandola said those powers were to be “used very carefully” and not “to deliver social programs.”
Instead, the territorial government has turned to a second, separate set of emergency powers available to the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs under the Emergency Management Act.
Using that piece of legislation, the NWT government on Friday declared a localized state of emergency in Yellowknife – and Yellowknife only – for the next two weeks, until the end of November 19.
The minister, Paulie Chinna, is using her own emergency powers under that act to acquire the Mine Rescue Building as a day shelter.
Chinna can keep renewing the local emergency for as long as the shelter is needed.
The territorial government on Friday said the move was justified as the lack of sufficient shelter space, with winter approaching, formed a “public safety issue.”
The GNWT will cover the building’s leasing and operating costs.
Powers bypass municipal process
“This is an extraordinary situation,” said Chinna, stressing the use of her emergency powers was a temporary solution. The NWT government plans to open a new, permanent shelter in Yellowknife by 2023. How long the temporary shelter will stay open has not been specified.
Alty on Friday acknowledged the NWT government had originally asked to use the Mine Rescue Building in August but councillors had rejected the request, in large part because local businesses objected.
The mayor said the use of territorial emergency powers to work around her own council’s rejection of that plan was justified and “welcome.”
Ordinarily, such a formal rejection means the same plan cannot be considered again by council for six months. The territory’s emergency powers override that mechanism.
“They are very strict,” Alty said of the bylaws that ordinarily guide developments like this. “They don’t recognize an emergency situation … and that’s what we feel this is. We welcome the opportunity to use this legislative tool.”
The territorial government said nearby businesses, who expressed concern for the safety of staff and customers back in August, had been informed of the move earlier on Friday.
The GNWT and city said steps would be taken to mitigate the impact on those businesses.
“We’ll be meeting some of them today,” Chorostkowski said of businesses on the street.
She said the GNWT expected to build a fence between the Mine Rescue Building and the parking lot of neighbouring Overlander Sports, with security in place during all hours of operation.
Alty said Friday’s announcement at the city’s request was not an admission that councillors made the wrong decision in rejecting the same plan three months ago.
“Council requested the GNWT take a look at other options. They did take a look at a lot of other options,” said Alty.
“They have presented more mitigating measures and I think that has addressed council’s concerns.
“This allows us to expedite a decision.”
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.