With a proposed temporary day shelter in downtown Yellowknife formally rejected, the territorial government must race to find another warm space for vulnerable people before the winter.
Four of seven city 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, in a special council meeting on Monday evening.
It’s the latest development in a months-long push by the GNWT to establish a day shelter in the city ahead of the winter. A near-identical scenario played out last year regarding the former Mine Rescue Building.
On Tuesday, health minister Julie Green told Cabin Radio she was let down by council’s decision.
“As the Minister of Health and Social Services, the MLA for downtown, and a person who’s lived in Yellowknife for more than 20 years, I was very disappointed,” Green said by phone.
“I really was sorry that they didn’t consider the needs of this segment of our population and meet those needs by granting a development permit for the use of the old Legion building.”
Green said the GNWT is now “evaluating all the possibilities” for what to do next, including continued use of Yellowknife’s community arena as an emergency shelter or the erection of temporary structures.
The minister did not state whether the GNWT would again declare a local state of emergency to seize the former Legion building for use as a shelter, which is what the territorial government ultimately did to open a shelter in the Mine Rescue Building last year.
Nor did Green state whether her government would try to take council’s decision to the municipality’s development appeal board.
“What we’ve said all along is that the space is required urgently,” Green said, “and with snow in the forecast, that really takes on new meaning. We do not currently have enough shelter space to meet the needs of people who do need shelter space and the related services.
“We need a solution to this immediately.”
This time, there’s an outbreak
Lydia Bardak, a longtime advocate for Yellowknife’s vulnerable population, said there was a key difference between last year’s Mine Rescue Building debate and this year’s situation: an ongoing Covid-19 outbreak in Yellowknife.
“Last year, when they obtained that building through the emergency measures, we didn’t have Covid in Yellowknife,” Bardak said.
“Now we have people on the streets dying from Covid. We’re in more of a state of emergency now than we were last year.”
In September, the GNWT declared a Covid-19 outbreak among the “underhoused and vulnerable population” in the city. Six people in the territory have died from Covid-19 in the past month, though only one, a 92-year-old in Fort Good Hope, has been publicly identified.
Nick Sowsun, a founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, dismissed councillors’ reasoning for voting against the shelter as inadequate.
“Fundamentally, they’re siding with the concerns of the businesses over the needs of the most vulnerable population in Yellowknife,” Sowsun said.
“Different councillors made some kind of suggestion that they were doing it for the street-involved population, and they deserve better, but you’re not doing the street-involved population any favours by voting down a warm place for them to go.
“It was confusing and it didn’t really make sense to me.”
‘A very dangerous decision’
Mayor Rebecca Alty cast one of the three votes, alongside councillors Julian Morse and Shauna Morgan, in favour of the proposed shelter.
Alty said she could appreciate different views on the matter and respected the outcome, but questioned whether the application had been appropriately considered.
“As much as there may be better options, when the development permit is in front of us, we’re considering that,” she said.
“I think we have to treat it similar to other applications and really apply the zoning bylaw lens to it.”
Neesha Rao, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, praised Alty for her comments during the council meeting.
Rao referred in particular to the mayor’s point that other applications for conditional use permits – such as allowing food services at Sundog Trading Post or Gastown – had not involved discussion among councillors about better locations.
“I think what her comments reveal is … the process of this decision by city council is, in my view, discrimination against people experiencing homelessness,” Rao said. “I find this to be a very dangerous decision that is going to affect the safety and well-being of members of our underhoused community.”
It was “particularly disturbing” less than a week after the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Rao continued.
Yellowknife’s last point-in-time count – a rough assessment of how many people are staying in shelters, using short-term housing, or sleeping rough over a period of two or three days – reported 90 percent of those surveyed identified as Indigenous.
Indigenous people make up only 23 percent of the city’s overall population.
What do businesses think?
While hundreds of people signed an open letter in support of the day shelter, a range of nearby business owners urged the city to reject the territory’s proposal, citing the potential impact on their revenue and the safety of customers and staff.
Edward Tse, the manager of the Discovery Inn, strongly objected to the proposed shelter’s location. Tse told Cabin Radio council’s decision was “a good thing.”
“At least it stabilized the business confidence in this government,” he said.
Jay Bran, a criminal defence lawyer whose practice is in the building beside the former Legion building, only said he hopes “a solution is found as quickly as possible, because it’s a service that’s needed, and it’s needed quite badly in this town.”
Bran previously told Cabin Radio he worried clients would not want to come to his office with a shelter next door.
Are there options left?
The NWT government must now assess whether a plan B exists and can be activated in time for winter.
Alty said city staff have already discussed allowing use of the community arena as an emergency shelter to continue.
Asked about the possibility of another emergency declaration, the mayor said she expected the territorial government to consider that step.
“I think it’s what’s required,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that the legislation was designed to be used this way but, at the same time, it is required to keep people safe and warm in the winter.
“It’s important that all legislative tools are considered to ensure residents’ safety.”
Rao called on the GNWT to either declare a state of emergency and seize the building or appeal the city’s decision using Yellowknife’s development appeal process.
“There is an emergency right now because it’s cold and because it’s going to get colder, and because of the pandemic – but people always need somewhere to sit down, somewhere to use the bathroom,” Rao said.
“There is a public health emergency of addiction, trauma, mental health, disconnection, and homelessness … that the territory and the city need to acknowledge.
“That public health crisis has existed before the pandemic and will continue to exist unless we, as a community, really do something about that.”
McKenna Hadley-Burke and Emily Blake contributed reporting.