Tin Can Hill in November 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
RJ Simpson spent Wednesday in the NWT legislature facing MLAs’ concerns about the proposed construction of a university campus on Yellowknife’s Tin Can Hill.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, whose district includes Tin Can Hill, says residents don’t want development on the hill and feel blindsided by a proposal out of nowhere.
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos – whose district includes Fort Smith, the present headquarters of the college set to become the NWT’s polytechnic university – sought reassurance that the headquarters will not wander north to Yellowknife if a shiny new campus opens.
On Monday, the City of Yellowknife and Simpson’s territorial education department said Tin Can Hill was not only the best bet for a new campus, but the only option they were prepared to discuss in public.
Asked by reporters on Monday which other locations had been considered, Chris Joseph, who has been leading Aurora College’s transformation into a polytechnic, said: “I won’t speak to specific alternative sites because, at this point, we’re not presenting alternatives. We’re presenting what is optimal.”
Some Yellowknife residents say they agree that using a small portion of Tin Can Hill (roughly a twelfth of it, based on figures provided by Joseph) as a campus would make sense and result in a stunning lakeside facility.
Others, though, say the stunning lakeside is the point: it’s already used by Yellowknifers as a place to walk, exercise the dog, relieve stress, and enjoy scenery a stone’s throw from their homes that is – so far – unspoilt.
Nokleby’s primary concern was that, even though everyone now has an opinion, nobody appears to have been asked before the city and GNWT announced Tin Can Hill was their preferred site.
“It seems to be a bit of a habit that things become a done deal before we’re ever asked about them,” she said, expressing wonder that even the district’s MLA wasn’t in on the discussion. (Nokleby did tell constituents about the proposal several weeks ago, but only as second-hand information passed on from others.)
Simpson insisted some people had been asked.
“Students were engaged. Staff were engaged. Indigenous governments were engaged. The city was engaged,” he told Nokleby. There have been various engagement sessions about the future of Aurora College as a university, and it wasn’t clear if Simpson meant those groups had been engaged more broadly, or specifically about Tin Can Hill as a location.
“Now we are in the public portion that is being run by the city,” he continued, “there is plenty of opportunity for public input in this zoning process.”
We have not yet officially reached any zoning process. City council still has to agree to sign a memorandum of understanding with the territorial government at a meeting – guaranteed to be attended by residents opposed to the plan – this coming Monday evening.
Only then would the city contemplate the required zoning changes. Both a zoning change and the eventual issuing of a development permit would be expected to trigger public hearings, though getting an entire university campus shot down in a zoning or development hearing might be a big ask for residents who don’t like the plan. (Environmental assessment of the site would also involve a public hearing.)
While Simpson told Nokleby “this is a City of Yellowknife consultation process [and] from what I understand, it has already begun,” the main process open to vexed residents so far is convincing councillors not to sign the memorandum on June 6. At the initial meeting on Monday this week, the only councillors who spoke about the campus plan voiced qualified support, so some minds would probably have to change.
The memorandum isn’t legally binding and doesn’t expressly approve the building of a campus on Tin Can Hill, but it does initiate the land transfer process and confirm Tin Can Hill as the “intended site.”
Responding to Simpson, Nokleby – with not a little sarcasm – stated: “What I hear then is that the GNWT and ECE itself did no public consultation before they made their decision to go with this site. I’m really glad to know that our inputs are being considered here.”
Why Tin Can Hill?
While the territory says it will not discuss the options it didn’t like, the minister was prepared to set out the benefits of Tin Can Hill.
Simpson said the team responsible for choosing a location “looked everywhere in Yellowknife,” without specifying any other sites.
“There were some requirements that were needed. The space needed to be large enough for future expansion,” the minister said.
“There’s a desire to have a site that would allow for on-the-land learning, for cultural spaces, a place that was close to the downtown core where all of the facilities could be located together. These are some of the requirements we wanted to have as part of this.”
In response to Nokleby noting one resident’s bid to list every time development on Tin Can Hill had been successfully opposed, Simpson said: “There’s a long history of proponents trying to develop Tin Can Hill … because it’s a great site, because it has all of those aspects. It is the clearly the most preferable place for a polytechnic university.”
Nokleby did not agree.
“With the construction of a campus in this area, Copper Sky apartments will likely become a thoroughfare and affordable housing in the area will become non-existent,” she said, referring to the apartments at the foot of the hill’s current main entry point.
“As southern students take away our already limited vacancies, gentrification will force our long-term and Indigenous residents from their apartments they currently call home.
“I’m concerned about the silo in which this work has been carried out. Clearly, residents have a lot to say on the future of Tin Can Hill. I have to ask … why weren’t we asked?”
Fort Smith’s role
Martselos, representing Fort Smith, had an entirely different concern.
Ever since the NWT government first announced Aurora College would transform into a polytechnic university by 2025, Fort Smith – home to the college’s headquarters – has feared losing that status.
At the moment, Aurora College has a presence in many communities but three major campuses in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik.
On Wednesday, Martselos sought to nail down Fort Smith’s role as the headquarters of the operation, come what may in Yellowknife.
“It has already been reiterated several times by the minister of education that the headquarters and the main campus of the future polytechnic university will be located in Fort Smith,” she told the legislature, before asking Simpson to say it again, just in case.
Simpson did not quite use the same wording. Instead, as ministers have now done for four years, he pulled away from the idea of a “main campus.” Even so, he essentially pledged the headquarters element of the university would remain in Fort Smith.
“Since the time that our premier was the minister of education, the messaging has been that the idea of a main campus is outdated,” Simpson told Martselos.
“That being said, there is no plan to move the administrative headquarters from Fort Smith to Yellowknife.
“There is a need for a new campus in Yellowknife. That has been discussed many times here. And there are needs for new infrastructure in the other campus communities of Inuvik and Fort Smith as well.”
Martselos agreed, noting that Breynat Hall, a former residential school building, remains in use as student accommodation in Fort Smith and must, as a priority, be torn down and replaced as the NWT opens a university.
“The prosperity of a new university has got to be shared across the three existing campus locations, but especially for the ones outside the capital region,” she told the legislature.
“The benefits of a future polytechnic university cannot solely be gained by the capital.”