Yellowknife city councillors have voted against the territorial government’s request to use a downtown building as a day shelter over the next three years.
At a special council meeting on Monday night, four of seven councillors voted not to grant the NWT government a conditional use permit for the former Legion building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street. They believe there are better alternatives for a day shelter that have yet to be explored.
Councillor and deputy mayor Steve Payne said he would have voted in favour of the proposal had it been for eight months rather than three years. He highlighted potential impacts on neighbouring businesses and the location at a busy street corner, expressing concern that someone could get hurt.
“I think there are some better options out there,” he said. “I know we’re going to come up with something.”
Councillor Niels Konge said he did not support the location as the building takes up the entire lot, meaning there is no outdoor space for people using the shelter.
He said he would prefer that the NWT government use temporary structures currently housing workers on the all-season Tłı̨chǫ Highway. He suggested retaining the emergency shelter at the city’s arena until a day shelter is in place.
The territorial government has said staff already assessed the potential of temporary structures, like modular units, among a range of other options. Perry Heath, director of infrastructure and planning for the Department of Health and Social Services, said temporary units were ruled out as there are challenges meeting legislative requirements to connect with city sewer and water services downtown.
Health minister Julie Green has called on Yellowknife residents to support the day shelter proposal, saying the former Legion building was the only option left. If opposed, she said, the outcome would be vulnerable people left in the frigid cold without a place to go. According to the latest weather forecast from Environment Canada, the city can expect snowfall as early as this week.
Councillor Stacie Smith, however, said she did not believe that “every stone has been turned” and wants a better solution for people experiencing homelessness that will allow the downtown to thrive. She noted she is a downtown business owner and a third-generation residential school survivor who has family impacted by addictions and homelessness.
“I won’t be in favour of this, and it’s not because I don’t want to help our vulnerable population. It’s not because I hate anyone. It’s because I feel in my bones that this is not the right solution,” she said.
“I am fighting for my people, for our people. I don’t want us to take the first handout, as we have for many years, thinking that this will be the only solution that comes toward us.”
Councillor Rommel Silverio said he wanted to send a message to the territorial government that he was not happy with the location chosen for the temporary day shelter.
“I’m not trying to be insensitive to the most vulnerable people in our community, they’re always staying to my heart, but I think they deserve better than this.” he said.
‘Unfortunate, embarrassing, untenable’
Councillor Julian Morse, meanwhile, cautioned fellow councillors against “Goldilocks syndrome,” reminding them that, last year, the city voted against the territory’s request to use the Mine Rescue Building as a day shelter in favour of finding an alternative. Those options didn’t pan out and the territorial government ended up declaring a local state of emergency to commandeer the building.
Morse said it would be “extremely unfortunate, embarrassing, problematic, and just untenable” if the same thing happened this winter with the former Legion building.
“If council does reject this, it does not necessarily mean it’s not going to happen in the community. It’s going to mean council tried to stand in the way of it.”
Councillor Shauna Morgan said it was not city council’s job to explore options for a day shelter that the territorial government will be running. She said the territory has experts who spent time looking for a location and the solution did not need to be perfect, but “reasonable.”
“We have something in front of us. We have an option that is tangible, that is real, that can get up and running soon,” she said. “Instead of hoping for something better that we haven’t seen outlined yet … I think we just need to grab on to the solution that is right in front of us, which I believe is good enough.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty agreed that councillors needed to focus on the request before them. She said other requests for conditional use permits, like allowing food services at Sundog Trading Post or Gastown, had not involved discussion among councillors about better locations.
Alty said she did not believe concerns about the former Legion building were sufficient to reject the territory’s proposal under the parameters outlined in the city’s zoning bylaw. She said issues could be addressed by requiring that the NWT government produce a conflict resolution process and mitigation measures before a development permit was granted.
‘It’s not a good feeling’
Monday’s vote followed a heated debate that played out in city meetings, news reports, and online. Several nearby business owners wrote letters urging the city to reject the territory’s proposal, while hundreds of people signed an open letter in support of the day shelter.
Silverio said the territory’s proposal was “one of the hardest things” he has had to decide in his political career and compared it to a family going through a divorce. Smith said the issue had divided the community and led some to bully others over their stance on the shelter.
“This has been a tough last couple of days, seeing the happenings on Facebook and seeing the happenings in the news,” Payne said. “It’s not a good feeling to feel like this.”
Morse, however, said it was an easy decision for him as he believes it is his “moral obligation” as a councillor to protect the most vulnerable people in the community.
“When we’re talking about businesses and some impacts that could happen to businesses, I just think that that is not even close to being in the same category of concern as risk to life and limb from being locked out in the cold in a city where temperatures regularly dip below -40C,” he said.
“I have to look at the people who are most at-risk here and that’s the population that’s being served by this shelter. And so I will prioritize their needs over businesses every single time.”
Morse argued several Yellowknife businesses located beside shelters have continued to be successful, and said he would make a point of supporting those businesses – even when ordering online might be easier.