Bob Stewart describes himself as a “frontrunner … in a league of my own” as he seeks to be named Yellowknife’s next mayor.
Stewart, owner of the Kilt & Castle pub, bases much of his platform on moving homeless people to a complex near the city’s airport as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.
Despite that proposed facility’s cost, Stewart is keen to save money in other areas, saying he will “cut back everything that I can afford to cut back” – starting by scrapping the current plan to build a new pool.
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Stewart said the City had implemented only a ‘patchwork’ of solutions to Yellowknife’s homelessness issue so far, in spite of the existing 10-year plan to end homelessness.
He also advocated speeding up the process of planning, development, and permitting, to enable the city’s builders to do more, faster.
Below, read the full transcript of Bob Stewart’s interview with Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams.
Ollie Williams: Why do you want the job?
Bob Stewart: Essentially, because I have for years seen kind-of a decline in Yellowknife, especially downtown. I have a degree in political science and the background to do the job so I feel like it’s my responsibility to do it, you know? I’ve learned, over the course of my life, that if you want to see something fixed then you pretty-much have to do it yourself. So.
If you want to fix something, it implies something is broken. What do you see as being broken right now in this city?
There are many things that just function completely improperly. Essentially, downtown is the biggest problem. We can’t even use Centre Square Mall half the time, it’s just overridden with homeless people and downtown in general just sees all kinds of violence and shouting and bad behaviour and things like that. The homeless and the addictions problem has reached a point that you can’t ignore it any more. You can’t keep doing the patchwork stuff that previous councils have done, it’s obviously not working. Really, major measures need to be put into place.
Let’s pick up on homelessness then, seeing as you’ve identified that as a focus already. The City has a 10-year plan to end homelessness at a cost of more than $100 million. They are one year into it. How much do you know about that plan, and how do you evaluate that?
I don’t know the entire plan. I see some of the things that they’ve done that are pretty good. With the budget that they have outlined, certainly everything that needs to be accomplished can be accomplished, but I don’t see it being handled in the right way.
How do you mean?
Take, for example, putting them in a building downtown across from the liquor store and moving them from one small building to another small building and things like that. These are very small measures to deal with it, but, again, some good measures such as the outreach van and things like that. Combining the sobering centre with the day shelter, some of these are good ideas, and I agree with those.
So what else would you do?
Well, I want to have an entire complex that is going to house not only the homeless and give them rooms to sleep in and things like that, but also has all of the community organizations that are working to help them with their addictions issues and things like that. Things like the Tree of Peace and that kind of organization. If we have all of the organizations sort-of under one roof, they can, I think, work together in tandem handling the issue. You’d also need to have a place where they can access the things they need to access, which includes alcohol, and necessary goods, and things like that. But essentially it would be a sort-of one-stop shop where everything that the homeless need is right there, including a park or community kind of area for them to hang out in. To get buy-in with everybody, you need to give them what they want.
If you could find the money for a building like that and you could convince city council to vote for it, where would you put it?
There is, out toward the airport, the primarily location I would be looking at. There is a spot right across from Bristol Pit.
The problem there is, there’s nobody homeless there.
They will be where you put the building.
That’s not likely to happen, though, is it? People are downtown for a reason. They’re not there just because it’s a default location, they’re there because that’s where they want to be. If you put a building where they are not, how do you get them to continue using it? You can’t lock people in that building.
No, no, and that’s not a goal at all. What the goal is, is to give them a place where they will want to be and that has more than what they get out of currently being downtown, you know? You’re right, you can’t take them away from their access to alcohol and their access to the drugs that they get their hands on and things like that. They won’t be out there if the entire homeless community isn’t out there. But if you build something that has everything that they want, that is where they’re going to be.
How many people in the homeless community have you spoken to about what keeps them downtown, and about what the attraction is?
Oh, quite a few, actually. As you know, I own a bar that is two doors down from the homeless shelter and I’m friends with quite a few of them, have talked to them, and they think what I want to do is a great idea. They are actually very thankful that somebody is planning to give them something that is actually nice, you know? That’s not something that they would have thought that a council, or somebody, would do. They’re used to getting empty boxes to sit in on folding chairs.
You’re proposing a facility that sounds like it would run into the millions of dollars to build. Often, people need to be convinced that spending a huge sum of money like that is going to work, and is going to be for the long-term benefit of the community. You’re prepared to have that fight, as well?
If people can see a full design and see exactly who would be housed under there, where the savings are – you’ve got a lot of organizations that are community-funded spread out in buildings all over town, that could be making savings by being all under the same roof – you can draw the money from all kinds of place. This hundred-million-dollar plan to end homelessness? I mean, what I’m proposing is significantly cheaper than that.
But you understand where the $100 million comes from in that plan?
Well, it’s partially GNWT and federally funded is it not?
In terms of where it is spent.
I haven’t looked at the entire plan, so I don’t know the whole budget for it.
So you’re coming into this campaign, it sounds like you’re going to be quite big on infrastructure in terms of spending to build new facilities for the city to enjoy…
No, I’m not, actually. Look, primarily this is the major project, but actually I would like to cut back on capital spending.
OK. Such as?
Well, I would not go forward with the new pool project.
Because I think that the project should be an expansion on the multiplex and, in the future… I mean, the pool is functioning right now. I have talked to a lot of people and there’s nothing wrong with it, and we have higher priorities to spend our money on, like downtown for example, and solving the homeless issue. A recreation project of that magnitude, I think, needs to be put on the backburner until we’ve got a more solid financial base to go from. I don’t like all the capital spending and all the credit that has to be drawn to do these big projects.
The City pool right now has just closed for a month for annual maintenance – a twelfth of a year that residents don’t even have access to the current pool. We have a situation right now where a raft of swimming lessons have been cancelled, parents can’t even get enough kids into swimming. There is clearly huge demand for a swimming pool facility that is fit for purpose in this city; a lot of people listening to this will be parents with kids and they want to see recreation opportunities for their kids expand. How will you sell this part of your plan to them?
It’s not entirely ‘no’ to a new pool. We need to reprioritize what the City actually needs first. If there is funding in the budget to replace the pool while taking care of the homeless issue, then it is going to be a decently high priority.
Well the City has currently identified both, hasn’t it? It’s identified the money for the pool and $100 million-plus, in partnership with other funding partners, for the homelessness plan.
Yeah. But they’re not being done properly. It’s not a good idea, the way that they have it all designed. I haven’t seen the entire budget for that homelessness plan, but I know it is going to be a new, standalone pool project. I don’t think that is a good place to spend the money. I think we should expand on the multiplex and make savings on the utilities and things like that, and be able to have it under the same roof.
Looking at the wider issue of the economy in Yellowknife, what would you, as mayor, be looking to do to improve our economic situation?
Well, I mean, essentially, by dealing with the homeless issue downtown, the revitalization idea could actually come to fruition in years to come. Until that is dealt with, downtown is not going to be an attractive area for anybody to be or use. So just in dealing with the one thing, you’re dealing with the other. You’re freeing up downtown to be a good place to invest again. I think that’s very good for the Yellowknife economy; it keeps things from spreading out like they seem to be in order to get away from using downtown. There are lots of other things, like we are booming with tourism right now, and obviously that’s something you have to take the reins with and run as far as you can. Small business help, like some of the ideas that have gone through like providing space for people who’ve won contests to start their own business, I think that’s a great thing and we should continue with those kinds of incentive as well. Small business really does need support and I think we should still focus on giving that.
Let’s take accommodation as an example of something where city council has recently grappled with various different issues. There are some parts of the year where accommodation for tourists is at a premium. At the same time, there’s a lot of demand on the rental market in this city. How would you deal with those twin situations?
I’m sure most listeners are aware of the situation with Nova Hotel. When they were building that hotel, there was a quagmire of red tape and trying to get it started, to the point where they just started building and the City had to catch up. For projects that are building more residential space or more commercial accommodation, we would certainly look at trying to fast-track that kind of thing to deal with an issue that is pressing, right now, to try to get these rooms in place as fast as possible.
What kind of fast-tracking? What red tape would you get rid of?
Essentially, it’s just the zoning process, the licensing process, things like that put to the top of the list, that kind of thing.
So… hang on, you would strip back those processes? How would it work quicker?
Just being favourable to OKing something of that nature, do you know what I mean? There are height restrictions and things like that where I know it can be a detriment to some people’s views and things like that, and there’s a process of people trying to stop develop in their neighbourhoods and things like that, but Yellowknife is definitely seeing a time when we really need to be building some more dense living space. I would be more favourable towards opening things quickly than to shut them down for that kind of reason.
Let’s take an example that city council recently faced, which was Old Town. City council took a decision to make it slightly easier for the development of hotel, motel, bed-and-breakfast space in Old Town. And that’s something you would support?
What would you then say to people in Old Town who say, ‘Well, that’s going to ruin the character of this very precious Yellowknife neighbourhood,’ if we start to see hotels move in there?
I would say that they have a point. Old Town is a heritage location. I would strongly look at exactly what the building plans were, and if it fit with what Old Town’s charm is, you know? If reasonably it fit with the charm of Old Town, and wasn’t going to be an eyesore, a modern-looking building or something like that, I think it could go forward. I think the people of Old Town have a point, it’s a special place.
The relationship with the Government of the Northwest Territories is an important part of the mayor’s role – managing that relationship, trying to get the most for the city out of that relationship. How much have you looked at that?
I’m aware of a lot of the workings of the GNWT and how they’re affecting the city itself. There are things they are doing that I certainly don’t agree with – I don’t know if it would be getting off-topic to go into GNWT affairs, but–
Well, would they affect the city?
Absolutely. And one of the things I would really be considering with the GNWT about is if there’s a way we can get this new gas tax not to affect northerners, including Yellowknifers. Because heat here is a necessity that should not be taxed.
You’re talking about the carbon tax?
There’ll be rebates available at source for heating.
Rebates? Not 100 percent?
Have you read the proposal from the territorial government in full?
OK. It might be wise to do that first. The tax is essentially revenue-neutral in the Northwest Territories. There is an implication in terms of some bulk supplies and fuel being brought up from Alberta, for example, where Alberta’s tax may apply but not the NWT tax, but the NWT’s carbon tax is essentially designed to ensure that people would not have to pay more for their heating in particular.
OK. I mean, essentially, I would just be hoping that the NWT wouldn’t pay any portion of the carbon tax, from anybody, at any time.
OK. And that is a conversation that happens at territorial level. But when you look at, for example, municipal funding through MACA, Yellowknife has had an ongoing dialogue about potentially millions in ‘missing’ funding for years. There’s also a dialogue around power. A couple of the candidates you’re running against are talking about the way Yellowknife runs its power, how its power arrangement works when the contract expires in 2019. Have you looked at any of that?
Yeah, I have looked at some of that. I am certainly not happy with the burden Yellowknifers are being asked to bear as far as the NWT Power Corp and things like that. I don’t think it’s entirely fair how the pricing scheme works.
What would you do?
That’s an issue that is complex enough that I’d need to have a sit-down with the people at the power corp and see, exactly, the reasonings behind it.
City Hall cuts
You would have eight city councillors, one member of staff who’s responsible to council – the senior administrative officer. What changes to the culture at City Hall would you like to see, or do you feel the operating environment there is on-track?
From what I’ve seen, most of the councillors have a pretty good relationship and are working well with each other. I know there has been some friction between some of the staff at the City, and mayor and council as well, but over a three-year term things like that are going to come up. I would like to see things change more toward economically conservative perspectives.
Would you cut back the number of staff?
Everything is up for review. I would cut back everything that I can afford to cut back, essentially.
What have you looked at so far? I’m sure you will have studied this to identify where you would recommend cuts. What would you look at?
Special-interest projects get funding from the City that I think are not an overly good way of spending our money. I think the composting program is costing us a lot of money and I’m not sure it’s getting the use we should get out of it, for the investment. I think the idea is good but I would be more prone to, say, switching back to at least three days of garbage pickup and winding down the composting program to a smaller one.
So, essentially, restoring things to how they used to be?
As far as garbage disposal goes, I don’t think the current system is working for everybody. I think it’s something that can be cut back on with the composting side and there could be cost savings there.
There are people who would worry that this sounds like a retrograde step, in the year 2018: to be doing less with our organics and recycling.
I just think, with the composting, one week of pickup is enough for most people. If you have one full bin of compost per month, I think that’s more likely than having two.
OK. Where else would you look at cuts?
Like I said, the pool program – we’ve already talked about that. I would cut back on the building of new roads, and things like that, and focus more on maintaining the ones that we have.
Which new roads, in particular, have you been unhappy with recently?
I probably wouldn’t have gone through with the access road up by the airport. I probably wouldn’t have done that program, for example.
Outline a vision for us. A lot of our conversation here has been about addressing quite serious issues, some of which are quite negative, and making cuts. People want a vision for what the city will look like, down the line. At the end of your first term, what could we expect?
This is the goal – and that’s a good question. If we go forward with the program for the new homeless community shelter, and we provide everybody with access to a rationed alcohol program and the counselling and things that they need, medical care and security, and things like that, and they truly do buy into the program with that shelter and they buy into the location – which, obviously, we would have to make nice enough that they would like to be there – you would see downtown start to be revitalized and not in the way that it has been planned in the past. The downtown will gain small business back, again, in locations like Centre Square Mall and on Franklin. You’re going to see more of an economic centre downtown. Things can start getting repainted and look nicer again. It is truly about finding a way to revitalize downtown and make it vibrant again but, the thing is, the past projects for that have not dealt with the most important issue.
I’m still interested in the concept of having somewhere for homeless people that is a complex out by the airport. So… let’s say we’re looking three, four years down the line. Are you imagining that, as we look out on the street here downtown on Franklin, there is no homelessness but 150 people in a complex by the airport?
No. Some of them will be downtown during the day, some of them will be walking around. That’s totally fine. But their base of operations is just going to be outside of downtown.
How are they going to get back and forth? Are they going to have to come downtown to get food every day?
No, no, no. The complex is going to have a shop, and the food first program is still going to deliver there, any all of those things.
And what does any of that do to address the underlying factors behind homelessness?
You have to build a community, a place like that, so you have the addictions counsellors and everybody else around and available. I mean, there is a large portion of people that don’t want to be fixed or anything like that; they want to keep going about their business, just like always. But there are going to be the odd one, or two, or three that are going to take advantage of the program if they see it every day, right in front of them, and see some opportunities. It’s going to be a small percentage, but part of the benefit of putting everybody under one roof is all of these people can work together to really try to connect with these people. They are a community, they need to be seen that way. To spread everything out to places where they can’t see them, or access them, or it’s just not in their consciousness… it would help a lot more if they could see what’s available to them and have it right there. You’re still going to have the outreach vans and things like that to deal with busing people who need back and forth. Aside from that, the idea makes downtown more attractive to all the tourism we’re attracting. Right now, at times, it’s an embarrassment seeing people fighting, and flinging bottles, and things like that downtown, when we’ve invited so many people to come and see this city. I just had a friend of mine come up here from down south and I was telling her she should get a cab two blocks, because she shouldn’t be walking home after 11 at night. Something serious does need to change but, if you have a good plan for it and you give them something that they want that is going to be nice, and they’re going to want to take advantage of it, you can have both worlds, you know? They just can’t pick their location.
You put your name forward in 2015 to be the Libertarian Party candidate here in the NWT for the federal election. We have another candidate already running for mayor in this election who identifies themselves as Libertarian, that’s Jerald Sibbeston. You’ve got two established rivals in Adrian Bell and Rebecca Alty, who’ve both served terms on council. How do you assess your prospects in this election?
Well, I would consider myself the frontrunner, to be honest. I think a lot of people in Yellowknife are not happy with what previous councils have done, and Adrian Bell and Rebecca Alty have had their time to show what it is they’re going to do to solve the issues – I mean the major issues – and most people haven’t seen them properly dealt with, and aren’t happy with the current directions. So as the non-previous-council vote, I consider myself a significant frontrunner.
But there are two of you, and you both identify as Libertarian. I’m sure you’ve taken the time to look at Jerald Sibbeston’s platform.
How do you differentiate yourself there?
I’ve spoken with Jerald and he doesn’t have the qualifications that i do. I don’t want to talk too much about him but, about myself, I’ve got a degree in political science. I’ve been a financial professional for 10 years, auditing municipalities and things like that, senior financial analyst for the GNWT, I’ve been a financial planning and budget analyst for the GNWT, I opened my own business. These people have not done the same things that I have. I opened my own business at 31 years old, and I’d accomplished all those other things prior to that, in my 20s. I’ve been spending my entire life to qualify to be a leader for a major operation like a municipality. I think that I’m kind-of in a league of my own as far as the qualifications side. Quite clearly, I should be a frontrunner in this race.