Stacie Smith, the owner of Flowers North, wants to help Yellowknife mend its downtown 'heart' if elected to city council.
Smith, in an overwhelming minority as a candidate of First Nations heritage, said she is running not only to address the diversity of city council but also to apply her outlook to the city's homelessness problem.
She says the City of Yellowknife's 10-year plan to end homelessness makes sense, but that plan's implementation has to be "just right."
Smith urges a focus on the city's small business community and calls for greater clarity when it comes to ways City Hall can support entrepreneurs.
Above all, she calls on her city to "realize homeless people are human beings" and treat them accordingly.
There are 16 candidates standing for the eight positions on Yellowknife City Council. Election day is October 15, 2018.
Ollie Williams: What made you want to run?
Stacie Smith: I've been thinking about it for quite some time, and I've actually had quite a few people tell me in the past few years, you know, 'Next election, you should run.' And I didn't know if I was really up to it, or the right person for the job. But I was sitting there, thinking, 'You know, at some point somebody is going to step up because we don't have a First Nations representative on city council. Someone is going to come forward.' Finally, I realized, why am I waiting for somebody else to come forward? I am more than capable of filling this position. From there, it was a matter of talking to my husband and making sure I could make this work. We figured out we could. It was first getting the nerve to do it and definitely having a vision myself for what I want to see for the city.
Predominantly, my platform is based for downtown because I am a small business downtown, I am an entrepreneur, and, for me, the downtown core is the heart. And if the heart isn't functioning, the rest will follow suit and you'll notice in small pockets of the city, things are going wrong. There's vandalism, there's theft, and all sorts. We really need to take it back to the basics and work on our downtown.
There's already a lot to unpack there. I want to start with the most easily identified thing that separates you from the people we look at on the current city council, and the other candidates for the next one, which is the fact that you bring an Indigenous background to your candidacy. How do you think that will affect the way you look at city council's affairs and the way you take decisions?
I think it's going to affect us in that I can bring a different outlook, being First Nations. Growing up, there was alcohol, drugs – not within my family. It takes seven generations in order for a new cycle to happen within a family and my mom was the first in that to ensure her children didn't grow up in that environment. And so it passes along. But having my cousins, aunts, and uncles, I mean... just seeing, in general, there is a very harsh reality when it comes to First Nations and having to deal with this. A lot of it has to do with reconciliation and the generations of neglect, and abuse, and all sorts of things. I bring that aspect where I get to influence what happens to us and how we can find solutions to assist us.
It's so easy to look downtown and say, 'There's that homeless person, they should have made better choices. But it's not that cut and dried. There are so many things behind it. You now see there is a gap between our homeless population and our working class, and I want to bridge that. We have such a high turnover here in Yellowknife, you have people that don't understand this situation, and I want to ensure people aren't coming in, right off the bat, thinking these people are horrible people who shouldn't be trusted. I want them to realize that they are human beings and we need to assist them. If we want to have the title of being a community, we need to act like a community.
Let's take that lens and apply it to the City's policies and programs directed at the homelessness problem right now. There is a 10-year plan to end homelessness. When you look at that, do you feel like that is effective and the right way forward?
Yes, the City is putting forth an effort to aid in the homeless situation we have going on. There are also some non-profit organizations – I got a chance to sit down with one of the Erasmuses, she came in and had a chat with me, and she works with an organization that really wants to assist in reconciliation. It affects not only the primary individuals it happens to but the generations after, because it is all cause and effect.
By including some of these organizations to help... they have a better understanding of how to assist. It's one thing to say, 'This is what we need,' but if you don't know the lifestyle, the emotional, the spiritual distress that people have, it's very difficult to say, 'This is what we're going to do and this is how it's going to work.' You need to understand more.
I think there were some 50 organizations or individuals that had some kind of input into that 10-year plan.
There definitely were, but it's the matter of implementing it, too, that needs to be done just right. Otherwise it's not going to work. What I really want to do is on a broader scale, which also includes reconciliation. When you look downtown, it's a lot of homeless people – not to say they all don't have homes, a lot of them have homes they sleep in, but they don't have any place to go. My scope on the situation is a little bit broader. Downtown is one of my main focuses as a whole. To get this going, we definitely need to sit down and see what it is that people need and what they need from us. We need to act as a community and involve the people who are going to be affected by this, and then go from there, utilizing as many resources as we can because we can't do anything without help.
One thing I have learned with this campaign is I have to ask for help, because I'm really good at 'I can do it alone!' but I'm not a lone wolf in this – I've got many people that are willing to help me along the way. I'm not going to have answers to everything on all these situations but I love to read, I love to be informed, and I'm going to get up to speed on everything as quick as possible.
How daunting is that, to look at the sheer volume of issues city council has to deal with?
It's pretty daunting. But when you're dealing with 20,000-plus people... there are eight councillors and one mayor so it's not rested all on one person's shoulders, it's a team effort. At least you have people to bounce ideas off of, and people that have been there before to help along the way. I've had people like Adrian Bell, I've had Steve Payne, and a few other councillors, come to me and offer me some good advice and some reading material. So I'm doing my best to try to keep up with people and I hope I'm going to do it justice.
Let's look at the downtown then. You used the analogy of making sure the heart of the city is functioning first, and then prosperity will flow elsewhere. We've talked about homelessness. Where else do you think city council needs to focus its attentions?
We definitely need to focus on our small, local businesses. Mining is starting to drop and so what we're relying a lot on is our tourism industry. Me, being a tourist going to another community, the one thing I love doing is going down to the downtown to see what they have to offer. From there, you get a broader idea of what to expect from that city. You come downtown and you see a lot of vacant lots, a lot of emptiness, and not a whole lot of ground-level shops, things to pull your interest. We really need to develop on this. We have the 50/50 lot, which nobody has figured out what to do with. City council wasn't quite sure what to put there because they need to have an anchor in there in order to keep it sustainable. It's a matter of bringing the idea to city council or to some small local businesses, to see if they want to band together to be that anchor.
For myself, I was actually talking to... I had my little campaign pow-wow last night and I was talking about how, just throwing the idea out there, is maybe having the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce there. They are affiliated with a lot of small businesses and larger businesses here in town, and they affect everybody. They are promoters of shop local. What else does the city run on? We run on coffee, on having a place to sit down and chat. That would be ideal for over there. What else are you going to have if you're going to rely on tourism? You want to have a place that sells tourist souvenirs, that will show you where to go in the city. You need to have historical landmarks. I've been down to Hawaii and you always have these little booths – they're not large, they are fairly small, but they have maps and tour ideas, landmarks you should go to see. We need to have something like that and it allows you to go in, you're oohed and aahed about what is here, and it makes it available for everybody. It's making that spot usable and it's also ensuring that what we have downtown already, we don't have businesses that overlap other businesses because then you are working against yourself and decreasing what kind of shops we have. You want to promote the products we already have and make sure it's sustainable.
You paint some great pictures there of how things should look. What can you do as a city councillor to facilitate that? Because you can't drag a shop kicking and screaming and put it there, but you can change the rules to say, 'OK, here's something that's going to make it easier.' How would you make life easier for downtown small businesses?
Right now, the City has a lot of funding available but a lot of small businesses don't realize it's there. It's daunting to think about all these hoops you have to jump through. It's a matter of the City making it available and look not as terrifying as it really is. Funding opportunities for development, for expansion... they have all sorts. It's just a matter of having businesses be able to have access – well, they have access to it, but it's not feeling so scared to apply for these funding opportunities.
We have a lot of great home-based businesses, and I get the 'Do I want to have a storefront or not?' It's, again, promoting shop local. Everything is so much easier. You can buy things online but, if you want to maintain a city, especially the downtown and make it look beautiful, you need to be able to take everything that this city has and put it out there for display.
I want to talk about accommodation. The City has two accommodation issues. One is people find it very expensive to live here. Rent and availability of rental space is an issue for a lot of people. And then tourists – we run into periods where the city's accommodation for tourists is virtually operating at maximum capacity, and that limits the ability of the city to develop its tourism industry. How can the City help to solve some of those issues?
It definitely is an issue. I know right now it is definitely a buyer's market, but not everybody wants to buy a trailer or a house. I've got some single friends that want to have a small apartment and it's very difficult to find those things, and it is very, very costly. Being on city council it would be beneficial to try to get a cap on what living expenses should be, because then you're really thinking about quality of life, because at least 50 if not more percent of your income is going to having a place to live in.
So how do we get that kind of cap?
It would have to be a bylaw that would have to be passed. Again, I'm not going to have all the answers to these, but I will definitely look into how we can facilitate and get this under way, because yes, the cost of living is ridiculous. I bought myself a home a year and a half ago and I'm glad I'm investing in something, but mortgage rates are ridiculous. When we were paying rent, that was just even more so. I was flabbergasted, the majority of my income was going to this and I have two children that play sports, and having to pay your power, your water bill. By the time you were done, you almost were paying more than you were getting... spending more money than you were actually making, and getting yourself further and further into debt. We need to implement policies and bylaws to ensure that this doesn't happen. Now, in talking with Adrian Bell, one of his platforms – which I wholeheartedly support – is talking to Northland Utilities about decreasing the cost with them. That eats up a lot of Yellowknifers' money.
You've clearly done some talking to Adrian Bell. Have you given much thought to who you want to be the mayor, if you're on council?
I definitely have given thought to it. I'm not going to say who, because it would be horrific to just... 'I'm voting this person!' I don't want to discourage anybody from running their campaign. Everybody has some great ideas. There are reasons why we are all running and I want to be in support of everybody who has put their name forward. But at the end of the day I already know who I'm going to be voting for, and it's on the DL.
'On the DL.' You are officially the first candidate that has ever used the phrase 'on the DL' in an interview with me. Somehow, that excites me. We have just a couple of minutes left and I want to get from you a vision of where you would hope Yellowknife is on track to be, once you finish the end of a first term if things go your way. What changes would we notice in a few years' time, do you think?
I hope that Yellowknife sees that we can push forward, definitely increase the development downtown. Like I've said, it's the heart and we need to treat it as such. I know a lot of people are really frustrated with the vandalism and theft, and I hope, within a four-year term, they'll see a decrease in this because we will have dealt with core issues that are plaguing us. I understand it's great to beautify Yellowknife and do all these things but, if we don't have people in place to assist...
I know there's a great pilot program right now that Adrian Bell has been backing up for the homeless, where they come out and help clean. If we can get that more than just a pilot program... because we have more than 100 in our population of the homeless. Give them jobs. Because the best thing about making someone feel like they are part of the community is they take pride in it. You'll see there are less people hanging out downtown. More people will be working, gaining an income. You'll see a lot less vagrancy. I've had my vehicle rummaged through by... mind you, I accidentally left the door open... but you know, people rummaging through my vehicle and they've taken my change. I know exactly who it is that's gone in there, but you'll see less of that, because they'll be part of a team and not just seen as 'those people over there.' You'll see, again, development of downtown. You'll see an increase in our tourism population because a lot of people will be more willing to come downtown to check it out.
One of the programs I've been part of is the Festival on Franklin, and that, again, is a revitalization effort to get people into the downtown core and realize it is not as scary as others make it out to be. I've walked up and down these streets my entire life because I've lived here, and I've never once felt that I was ever at risk for anything. The majority of people I know, they know me, and I want other people to feel the same way. I want them to feel safe in their home town.