On April 30, 2018, Rebecca Alty announced her intention to run for election as mayor of Yellowknife. On this page we reproduce a transcript of our interview with her.
As of May 2018, the two candidates in the race were Alty and Adrian Bell.
Ollie Williams: Why do you want to be the Mayor of Yellowknife?
Rebecca Alty: I love Yellowknife, it’s my home, I was born and raised here. I’ve been on council two terms and I’ve really enjoyed the work that we’ve done in the community and getting to know more and more people, and really help shape the city to make it the best place to live, work, and play, and for folks to visit. I want to do this on a full-time basis. That’ll give me more time and it’s a slightly different role – the mayor doesn’t vote but makes sure council’s direction is implemented, working closely with the SAO to make sure that’s happening, and also working with other governments more to advance city issues at the territorial and federal level.
In the coming years, with the Akaitcho self-government progressing, there would be a fourth level of government – working with our neighbour Indigenous governments.
Do you want the mayor’s role to evolve? If you were the mayor would you do things differently?
Slightly differently. I’m very results-oriented, I like to have goals, objectives, action plans and tracking against them. I think that’s what I bring to the table that would be a little different than currently. And then just continuing… Sheila is the current SAO and continuing to build that relationship with administration.
If there were two things you would put forward as the things you should be elected for, pick two to get us going. What would they be?
I’m still working on that. I officially wouldn’t become a candidate till August 31. I want to take the next couple of months to listen and talk with people, and I think that’s the key thing for a mayor. You are facilitating, you are running the meetings, and being open-minded and listening to both the minority and majority voices. Sometimes we have to raise the minority’s voices up and take those into consideration. For right now it’s some of those skills I can bring and her the coming months I’ll announce more about my platform.
I will press you, though, as I know you – as a councillor – must have an idea of where the priorities should lie for the City. Where do you think those priorities should be?
There are some big things coming up – we’ve got the replacement of the submarine line and the pool, so we’ve got a lot of big capital projects.
Those are the exact same answers you gave me three years ago, when you ran for councillor. Has nothing changed?
I still believe in being fiscally responsible. We’ve now got the terms of reference for the committee so they’ll be working with the public over the next year or so. Over this next term we’ll be implementing the plan, getting the building going, making sure we are focused on what we are delivering and – when we bring new projects on – making sure we are fully aware of the current cost and the cost to maintain them into the future.
Give us a little background about yourself and what you’ve learned from your previous experience.
As of today I’m on extended leave without pay but I was the manager of community relations and communications for Diavik, which involved stakeholder engagement and making sure we meet our commitments and obligations. Prior to that I was with AVENS as the director of communications and community relations; I was with the hospital foundation as the executive director; and I was with the GNWT in communications.
It’s a lot of engaging with folks and hearing concerns. We have a lot of social issues both in Yellowknife and the NWT and we need to continue to make progress on those, and employment is always a big concern, and what does the future look like? Once the diamond mines close, are we diversified enough? There’s been a lot of work with the GNWT, we’ve really increased tourism recently, we’ve focused on agriculture, but is there more we can do?
A few years ago, you suggested sometimes the City was getting distracted and almost trying to do the GNWT’s job for it. The phrase you used was “filling the void.” Is there still a void there?
Over this past term we’ve really come to the table as partners. When I look at the sobering centre and the safe rides, they’ve really come to the table and we’ve been able to facilitate it. Just recently with the Indigenous wellness centre, the GNWT is partnering with them to develop that but the City was able to help in the interim by providing a lease on the land and looking at some of our building bylaws – currently there’s nothing in regards to teepees. Just being able to work with partners if there are barriers, to help overcome them.
We touched on social issues. Is everything being done that can be done, and are we on the right track?
We are on the right track but there is more that we can do. We approved a 10-year plan to end homelessness and I hate creating plans then putting them on the shelf. The big focus for me will be making sure the plan is implemented and we’re engaging all the right stakeholders to make sure it can come together.
That’s a bold plan, a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Yellowknife. Do you believe that’s achievable?
Medicine Hat apparently has done it. It’s aspirational but also a plan that breaks it down and shows how it can be accomplished. Once you have the plan, if this isn’t possible then what does that mean? Does it become a 12-year plan? But at least you’ve got the information to help you decide if you’re willing to do that. The key as decision-makers is having the information and analyzing it, then making sure you are clear on what’s going forward.
Some people want a mayor who is deeply engaged in social programs and wants more supports for its most vulnerable people; others want a mayor who takes a tougher stance – with zero tolerance for things like threatening behaviour – because they feel intimated and feel the City’s current programs, even if they are well-meaning, aren’t hitting the mark. What kind of mayor would you be?
I think I’d be leaning more on the side of supporting the social programs, but in partnership with the GNWT so it’s not, ‘Hey, we’re going to take this all on and do it ourselves.’ They have a role to play. I’m not a hardline, aggressive, throw-everybody-in-jail style. I’d be more about the programs and supports the City has power to implement that could be helpful.
How much power do you think the mayor actually has? The mayor doesn’t vote but everybody tends to hold the mayor to account when stuff doesn’t happen. They are the figurehead. How comfortable are you with that?
That’s all part of the job. The key is making sure we are presenting adequate information to council, that they have enough time to consider it. It’s that facilitator, problem-solving, and effective communication. The mayor doesn’t have that positional power and in my previous roles I haven’t been able to say ‘This is what we’re going to do, everybody has to follow.’ I’ve got to bring people along on the journey, that’s my experience.
You’re announcing your candidacy very early. Why?
Four months early. I want to take the opportunity to meet with residents, talk about questions or concerns. It’ll be a good opportunity to get out and engage with folks.
What’s your impression of the atmosphere at City Hall right now, for the average employee?
They did an employee survey and employees are happy to work with the City. You want to continue to improve that and make sure there’s a culture where people want to jump out of bed in the morning and get there. You want people to feel comfortable bringing any concerns they may have, working as a team to get stuff done.
There were allegations of workplace harassment against the municipal enforcement manager and an independent inquiry will begin imminently. If you had been mayor in 2014 and now, how might those allegations have turned out differently?
I’ll have to wait to see the final report. It’ll identify whether processes and policy were followed and any gaps.
How well aware were you of what was going on at the time, as a councillor?
I wasn’t aware of the details. As a city councillor, the one employee we are responsible for is the SAO. It’s not our role to get into any discipline of staff below that.
Are you confident of the inquiry, its mandate, and its terms of reference?
Is it discouraging to you in any way to see key personnel announcing their resignations as that inquiry is getting going?
I think timing, and life, and different career choices… yeah.
Hypothetically, if a senior manager or any employee were to harass female employees, bully colleagues, use cameras to follow women around the city – and those allegations, in your mind, were proven – should that person keep their job?
We’ll have to wait to see the results. We’ve got a workplace harassment policy and if people are in violation of that, disciplinary action should follow
Are you happy with those policies? Do you believe, now, the City has a robust means of handling these things in future?
Yeah. We’ve got both the harassment policy plus a whistleblower policy, so if people don’t feel comfortable approaching their leader they can go through a confidential process. I do think there are avenues for employees to bring their concerns forward.
How much is it the mayor’s role to set the tone for what happens at the City?
I think that’s key. The mayor is there every day, as opposed to council which is Monday afternoons and evenings, making sure the mayor and SAO are working closely together, meeting regularly, that there are no concerns, and if there are policy changes or governance issues that council should be addressing.
Let’s look at the economy. Where is the City getting it right?
A few initiatives have recently been launched to help encourage entrepreneurs but I think there’s more work we can do engaging with businesses to find out if there are barriers and work to address those. Looking at diversifying the economy, some of the studies budgeted for this year will help. I’m looking forward to seeing those results.
Councillors often look at other cities and compare notes. Is there a city you would cite as an example?
There are different cities like us and we can look to them for what’s working. There are pockets of all cities. I travel a lot and…
Give me a pocket. Pick a pocket and an example of something you wish we would do here.
From a tourism perspective I see the need to put more signage around. In some cities it’s clear. In others, you even ask residents and they have no idea where something is. When it comes to some of the cultural… I would like to see the opportunity to have more cultural camps around Yellowknife, to work with NGOs to make that happen.
Should Yellowknife be any more like Whitehorse?
Whitehorse isn’t my fave. I commute via walking and it’s so long and spread-out. If you love the mountains Whitehorse is for you, and it’s got some great restaurants and entrepreneurs, but in the past few years we’ve seen tons of restaurants popping up and I hope they can be sustained with residents and tourists supporting them. Yellowknife is more walkable.
You got the most votes in the last election. What does that tell you?
That people appreciated the work I did in my first term. I really appreciated all the support, it meant a lot and I hope for the same for mayor.
Is it essentially a popularity contest in a city this small?
I don’t think so. Thinking of the last election, folks said they supported me based on the decisions I made in that term. I think it’s the values a candidate brings and if somebody knows you better, that will clearly be a help. But also what you stand for and the ethics you bring forward.
What decisions did you make in the last three years? What highlights would you pull out?
The homelessness plan was an important one. Really, the big work I’m proud of every term that I’ve been on is the budget, scrutinizing and evaluating it.
A hard sell as people don’t see that work and the benefit of it.
They can come! We have had a lot of people come, recently.
Most people don’t see that as a spectator sport. How do you explain to people what the worth of that is?
It comes out through the year. You are setting direction, supporting projects so that when they come forward to council, they get highlighted. Are people OK with a tax increase and supporting this project or would they prefer to keep a steady line, or increase it here and decrease it there? Although residents don’t come to every budget session, there are a lot of conversations around that time of year.
Is city council functioning well as a unit right now?
I think there are ways we can improve the process of council sharing information and having more workshops open to the public. This council, we’ve had a lot of split decisions – which I don’t think is a bad thing, it shows we have a diverse view on issues. If council voted unanimously on everything, we’d have concerns. In my view it shows different views are coming to the table.
Three-year or four-year terms for councillors?
I’m more a fan of the four-year term. Every three years is quick, especially as a new councillor. The first year you get up to speed, you start to understand it, then boom, it’s your third year and you’re done. It is a lot of work, campaigning – to do it every three years versus four years, there are fiscal savings for the City too, and it’s in line with the territorial and federal governments. Not that I think they should all be at the same time, but I think in 2015 we had great voter turnout.
When you look at the current mayor, he’s not running again. What are your impression of the way he has gone about that job?
I’ve worked with him for the past six years. It’s been good to learn – he also had nine years’ experience as a councillor before that. He’s got a solid understanding of process and procedures but, for me, my focus would be a bit more on deliverables, and actions, and making sure we are tracking against the priorities we set out.
What will that look like? If there’s a Mayor Alty, what will I notice that’s different?
In the mining world we’re all about lean boards and metrics and stuff like that. I’m looking at City Hall like, where can we put the lean board to show our progress? In council chambers, as much as I love the beautiful photos, we should have our priorities and show how we’re tracking on it – red because we’re not currently doing any work in this regard, green because we’re advancing that, these are the actions we’re taking to advance this priority. Both in council chambers and on the City’s website, more of a report card or dashboard system.
You’re saying run the place a little bit more like a diamond mine.
Or like a hospital. Vancouver uses dashboards, too, to show a project is 75 percent complete – then people can go see it. This project is behind because we haven’t been able to get a contractor. Not only for the public but it’ll be really valuable for the councillors, too.
So we’re talking about increased public accountability. How do you sell that to staff who have a lot to do?
That’s the key. When you’ve got your shopping list of 40 items, which one is going to give us the best return and how much time are we dedicating to it? Approaching it to really say this is the key one that’s going to help advance this, can help staff prioritize and know that’s where their work should be going.
Before you go, sum up in 30 seconds why people should follow your campaign.
I’m passionate about Yellowknife and making sure it’s the best place to live, visit, work, play. Getting out and chatting with people, as mayor, is the key. Not coming to every issue with the solution but listening to folks to determine what the problem is, make sure we look at it holistically, listen to different perspectives, then be decisive and get on with implementing.