Is Yellowknife prepared to accept a Tin Can Hill campus?


Turning a portion of Yellowknife’s Tin Can Hill green space into a university campus is a plan guaranteed to spark a reaction.

City councillors will next week decide whether to sign an agreement with the NWT government that earmarks Tin Can Hill, a lakeside network of trails through rock and forest, as the university’s future location.

Mark Phillips, a Yellowknife resident who told Cabin Radio he spends “lots of time” on Tin Can Hill, is among those excited by the proposal.

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“People want a new Aurora campus, it’s gotta go somewhere,” said Phillips, referring to the territory’s plan to transform Aurora College into a polytechnic university.

“I think the Tin Can Hill location is a great spot. It’s such a large area and it looks like the main buildings will overlook the water,” he said.

A City of Yellowknife map shows how the footprint of university facilities might fit into Tin Can Hill
A City of Yellowknife map from May 2022 shows how the footprint of university facilities might fit into Tin Can Hill. (The image is a concept – the locations shown are not yet actually proposed.)

“I spend a lot of time on Great Slave Lake and coming back into town, I am sure it will be great to have a brand new post-secondary campus sitting high on the shore.”

Tin Can Hill is best-known as a dog walkers’ haven, offering one of the city’s few easily accessed off-leash areas of any size.

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Territorial and municipal staff think a campus can be built that preserves the trail network to a large extent, though the proposal is at an early stage and a formal design for the campus does not yet exist.

“I’ve grown up in Yellowknife and have spent a lot of time on Tin Can Hill walking my dog. It’s great for that, I get it,” Phillips wrote to Cabin Radio.

“However, I think building a post-secondary campus up there will be a huge plus for the city of Yellowknife.

“Perhaps there is the possibility that some of the trails can be kept. I’m not sure if everyone realizes how much space is up there.”

Former president approves

Tom Weegar was the president of Aurora College for a year until early 2020, overseeing some of the college’s initial steps toward transformation into a polytechnic university.

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Weegar agrees that Tin Can Hill is a good location for the university, as long as the college has a clear sense of what future programming will look like.

“Do you need scientific lab space?” He asked. “Do you need computer space? Do you need networking space? Do you need a space for mining reclamation and remediation technology? Do you need trades?”

If done correctly, Weegar said, Tin Can Hill is a location with a lot of potential.

“It allows for the development of a nice campus,” he said. “There can be a nice set of walkways around the lake and throughout the campus, and even throughout the wetlands.

“There are some marshy-style wild wetlands on the property that can also be retained as wild wetlands with some boardwalks around. I think the property is very positive.”

Weegar hopes the new location allows the university to engage with the Indigenous population, providing “an appropriate place for Elders, a prayer place for Indigenous students.”

“I hope that the Indigenous presence is very strong,” he said. “Whatever campus is developed, I think, has a bit of work to do around that right now.”

‘Parks reduce cortisol levels’

Phillips and Weegar like the idea of a Tin Can Hill campus. Many residents don’t.

Tiarella Hanna, who owns Yellowknife’s Happy Pooch pet grooming and services business, described Tin Can Hill as an area that is “so easy to access and has a lovely soundscape made by birds and water.”

“A vibrant downtown is key to a vibrant city, and access to Tin Can Hill for nature and recreational purposes should be protected,” Hanna wrote.

She said she hopes the city takes into account “research showing how important green space is to the well-being of city dwellers.”

Will Gagnon, a Yellowknife resident who works in the fields of climate and engineering, noted the plan to use Tin Can Hill ignores areas like Con Mine, a former gold mine that represents already-developed land now close to being fully remediated.

Gagnon tweeted sarcastically: “Why use the former mine site when you can use a perfectly untouched natural environment?”

“It’s one of the last untouched natural areas in town,” he told Cabin Radio. “I don’t understand why the project isn’t planned on the Con Mine area instead.

“This is a brownfield that needs remediation. There is funding federally for brownfield remediation. Why don’t we just remediate that and build it there?

“I think it paints a much better success story.”

Not only that, Gagnon argues the use of Tin Can Hill could be detrimental to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, an area in which the NWT is already struggling to meet what is now, by federal standards, a modest 2030 target.

“This area sequesters carbon,” he said of Tin Can Hill. “it’s a piece of land that is carbon-negative, it’s sequestering carbon into the soil every year. If we cut it, it’s just really not smart.”

Gagnon compared the space to Central Park in New York City or Mount Royal in Montreal.

“These are areas that are protected from development because people like going there, it adds value to the city,” he said.

Gagnon added that parks are associated with reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

He hopes there will be enough opposition from Yellowknife residents that the municipal and territorial governments reconsider their proposal.

“I’ve spoken to a few residents on School Draw Avenue,” he said, referring to a street bordering the hill, “and everybody says no. I think it’s a waste of time from the City of Yellowknife.”

‘Plan this city right’

Ryan Silke, a Yellowknife dog owner, wants to remind the city of how proposals to develop Tin Can Hill normally fare.

Silke emailed a list to city councillors – and Cabin Radio – of past, failed attempts to do something with the hill.

In 1985, 1988 and 1990, residents pushed back against proposals involving Tin Can Hill, Silke wrote. In 2009 and 2011, he added, similar opposition to development was raised.

“The year is 2022. The GNWT and Aurora College, with support of city administration, want to build a fancy university on Tin Can Hill,” he wrote.

“Do they think the public outcry will sound any different this time? Will the city manage and respect public feedback as poorly as they did with the zoning bylaw?

“Will our city council vote in favour of destroying another of Yellowknife’s best green spaces?”

Silke urged councillors to “just say no” to any development on Tin Can Hill. “Stop reacting to pitches, listen to what residents are saying, and plan this city right.”

Phillips, though, said a development like this will always face opposition – and sometimes they happen anyway.

“This is just how it goes sometimes,” he said. “Not everyone is going to be happy with such a big decision.”