Yellowknife councillors vote to sign Tin Can Hill campus memo
Yellowknife city councillors on Monday voted almost unanimously to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding a Tin Can Hill university campus.
Only Councillor Stacie Smith opposed signing the document, which earmarks Tin Can Hill as the “intended site” for the campus and begins the initial steps of a land transfer process.
Others said that while they understood residents’ concerns, they believed plenty of public consultation lay ahead and, on a more basic level, they supported the concept of a campus on the hill.
Officials have been keen to stress even a signed memorandum of understanding – which is not legally binding – does not represent a done deal.
Some residents agree with the GNWT that a campus expected to initially use about a twelfth of Tin Can Hill would provide a stunning lakeside facility for a reinvigorated post-secondary institution.
Academic Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox and Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce president Rob Warburton each spoke in favour of the campus as residents presented to councillors before their debate.
But others say the green space, beloved by dog walkers and a stone’s throw from downtown, must be preserved – and any development will be the start of a slippery slope, with more of the land set aside for a possible university expansion.
Six residents presented to that effect on Monday, a couple becoming visibly angry as they spoke.
Summing up the view of many councillors, Shauna Morgan set out a best-case scenario in which Tin Can Hill becomes a standout campus and the public can still access the green space, even finding improved access like removal of broken glass and inclusion of accessible trails. The economy would benefit and research dollars stay in the North, she said. “This could be amazing.”
Equally, Morgan said, if the proposal is rejected, Tin Can Hill could be “instead gradually eaten away, piece by piece, and private condos put up there.”
She and others told residents to have faith that governments could find a way to blend a campus and the trails to locals’ satisfaction, calling opponents “defeatist” to begin the process “believing that governments will always mess everything up.”
“It’s hard to develop public institutions if that’s your starting point,” she said.
Smith, the lone councillor in opposition, said she was “standing firm with a lot of residents.”
Signing of the memorandum means the GNWT can soon formally request the land, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said, and “we would be looking at the rezoning process to begin in early 2023.”
That process is expected mark the point at which residents will next be given a say in the design and development of a campus.
A facilities plan to be released by the GNWT later this summer should set out in more detail how the territory envisages such a campus looking.
As it happened
Throughout Monday evening, we provided live updates on the meeting as it happened. Read our full coverage below, where newer updates are shown first.
- Almost all councillors support the memorandum, which will be signed
- Stacie Smith is the only councillor so far to oppose the memorandum
- Residents earlier presented to council, starting with Tamlin Gilbert (anti-hill)
- Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox (pro-hill) says the dog-lovers’ paradise argument is flawed
- Allan Gofenko alleges the GNWT proposed Tin Can Hill in a “hush-hush” way
- “You are all up for re-election,” one angry resident tells councillors
- A former city planner says the city’s planning documents don’t support the proposal
- Julian Morse amends the MOU to ensure a campus “complements the natural setting”
21:34 – That wraps up our coverage. If you were with us all the way, congratulations and thanks for reading.
21:26 – Alty confirms she is supporting the motion to sign the memorandum, stressing it is a “public commitment to work through” all the challenges.
The motion carries with only Stacie Smith opposed.
The MOU will be signed, and the process of shaping a campus on Tin Can Hill will continue – with, councillors stress, lots of opportunities for public input and scrutiny.
21:24 – Alty says residents “want to be 10 steps ahead” and have a fear of the unknown. “I understand that,” she says. “I’m not giving the farm away for free. The city is maintaining control of this land and the planning through our legislative tools. This isn’t a carte blanche.”
21:22 – Mayor Rebecca Alty says she thinks first of the students, listing various northern student accomplishments. “They deserve a beautiful, culturally relevant and appropriate education on a campus that’s integrated in the natural setting and with great trails and open space,” the mayor says. This is clearly another yes.
21:20 – Steve Payne says “we can make this the gem of Yellowknife … and this is the best-case scenario to preserve our trails.”
“Sometimes we don’t understand the whole process of what’s going on behind closed doors but we have to put faith that there were many professionals behind picking this location,” Payne continues.
He’s supporting the motion. That makes five so the motion is passing and the memorandum will be signed.
21:18 – Morse, who did not immediately wrap up, wraps up after Rebecca Alty’s second plea. “In summation, I’m supportive of the project,” he says.
“While Julian was talking we’ve already moved on to step three of this process,” says Councillor Steve Payne, to much laughter.
(For those of you who are new to this, we are now through the councillors who talk the most.)
21:16 – “Councillor Morse, you’re just going to have to wrap up,” says the mayor, who sounds on the verge of calling in an air strike to disrupt this soliloquy.
21:13 – Morse is discussing the history of public opposition to things.
21:11 – Morse is the first councillor to note that a lot of people got in touch supporting the proposed location, as well as opposing it.
21:09 – Morse, saying what Morgan said, thinks a university campus is “the best chance” of preserving Tin Can Hill’s trails from other natural predators like housing.
21:05 – “The absolute worst-case scenario for Yellowknife is that this project doesn’t go forward and isn’t visionary,” Morse says, arguing the university can drive the economy when the mines close.
“This is one of the few opportunities I’ve seen come forward that has real potential to save this community,” he says. (His picture of Yellowknife post-diamond mining is bleak. If you’re a Yellowknife homeowner or business owner and want nightmares tonight, listen to the last four minutes.)
21:01 – So far, we have Williams, Morgan and Mufandaedza in favour and Smith opposed. Councillor Julian Morse now says he “highly values what Tin Can Hill is for this community” and that he knows how many people, himself included, have a personal connection to the site.
Morse says he had “a lot of hesitation” when he first heard the proposal and “knew it was going to be contentious.”
He says the engagement on the project was not great and adds he called the education minister on Friday to talk about that. He says the GNWT has created a situation where an “overwhelmingly positive” development has become contentious.
Morse points out opposition to the concept of a university, never mind the campus location, appears to have petered out. He says some residents opposed the very idea of a university in previous years.
20:58 – Cynthia Mufandaedza says she had some reservations about the MOU and didn’t take her decision lightly. She points to the opportunity for growth and expansion, believes the students would support businesses downtown, and thinks the market housing nearby would benefit, too.
Mufandaedza characterizes the MOU as “an initial stage for the city and the GNWT to start working together” and says she will support it. She says residents will have the opportunity to provide feedback, and will be heard.
20:55 – Shauna Morgan backs the memo, while having “eyes wide open” to worst-case scenarios and pitfalls.
20:53 – Morgan says putting the student residence and parking near to, but not on Tin Can Hill might be helpful to allaying some fears.
20:51 – Morgan suggests a future council could allow private homes on Tin Can Hill (these future councillors sound like jerks, who the heck elected them), whereas the university plan would instead preserve public space.
She fears trying a downtown campus could leave us with facilities about as bad as Aurora College’s current Yellowknife buildings. “That could be a real worst-case scenario for the city,” she argues.
To the suggestion that the GNWT is paving paradise and actively considering putting up a parking lot, Morgan admits “that could happen” but says it’s defeatist to begin the process “believing that governments will always mess everything up.”
“It’s hard to develop public institutions if that’s your starting point,” she says.
20:48 – Morgan sets out a best-case scenario in which Tin Can Hill becomes a stellar campus and the public can still access Tin Can Hill, even finding improved access like removal of broken glass and inclusion of accessible trails. The economy benefits. Research dollars stay in the North. “This could be amazing,” she says.
Then she says worst-case scenarios include if the proposal is rejected and Tin Can Hill is “instead gradually eaten away, piece by piece, and private condos are put up there.” Morgan says that is a realistic scenario.
“This could be one of our best chances to preserve a public trail system,” she says.
20:46 – Councillor Shauna Morgan says she has “a lot of things to say.”
20:45 – Elaborating on her earlier remarks, Stacie Smith – who is against the MOU – says the city is missing a great opportunity to revitalize its downtown. She says she is “standing firm with a lot of residents.”
20:44 – Silverio sounds as confused as anyone about what the memorandum actually does or does not mean. Mayor Alty stresses the MOU “can’t bind the hands of council” and the city will be the regulator in a process whereby the GNWT applies to develop a campus on Tin Can Hill.
20:43 – We’re back. (That was not 10 minutes, he wrote mournfully, through a mouthful of strawberries.)
Councillor Rommel Silverio is going over when the public could get a say in this. He’s told the land use planning process would provide a public hearing opportunity, and there would be a chance to ask for more consultation steps before the public hearing, too.
20:33 – Williams sounds like he’ll be in favour of the memorandum. “The zoning bylaw is the real debate,” he decides, and the memorandum is “just sort-of a set of instructions on getting two administrations to start working together.”
And now a 10-minute break to allow councillors to gather themselves and let me eat my dinner.
20:31 – At this rate, we’ll be going past 10pm. Get more snacks.
20:29 – Pointing out that this is a special meeting, Councillor Robin Williams says this seems to him like a compressed timeline. He asks why, given it is “such a contentious issue.”
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett doesn’t really answer that question but seems to suggest there’s a lot of work to get done so things need to get going. (In fairness, it’s a question for the GNWT as much as it is for the city.)
20:26 – If the MOU is signed, Sheila Bassi-Kellett says ECE would formally request the land and “we would be looking at the rezoning process to begin in early 2023.”
20:24 – We’re into a thicket regarding how much of the development process should or should not be included in a memorandum of understanding. The city’s overarching view is that there’s a whole process ahead and anything now is premature, because lots of checks and balances are still to come.
20:21 – It is pointed out that more information about what the campus would look like is due in the university’s facilities master plan, later this year.
20:18 – We are now into discussion about the memorandum as a whole – the meat of the evening, in other words.
Councillor Robin Williams, querying language in the memorandum, asks whether there’s really any debate left about options or whether Tin Can Hill “has been very much selected.”
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, the city manager, says the GNWT provided criteria that suggested Tin Can Hill “would be an optimal site for consideration.” Bassi-Kellett says a “very clear public component” would have to follow, not least a statutory public hearing, if the MOU is signed.
“There are processes in place. We will align, of course, with the community plan and the zoning bylaw,” says Bassi-Kellett, adding it is not out of the question that Tin Can Hill could ultimately be rejected.
“At this point, we are starting with looking at Tin Can Hill,” she concludes.
20:15 – Morse’s amendment carries with Smith opposed.
20:14 – “It does not necessarily follow … that the entire site becomes inaccessible to the public, that the trails will no longer be there” if a campus goes ahead on Tin Can Hill, Morse tells residents.
Morse, pointing out the president of Aurora College is in the room, stresses the university’s leaders are well aware of that concern “and what is and is not on the table.”
20:11 – Stacie Smith doesn’t like Morse’s amendment “or the MOU, for that matter.” Smith says she has listened, heard residents’ concerns, and won’t support “any of this because I want residents to know that we’re listening.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty says she’ll support Morse’s amendment. (We still haven’t discussed the actual memorandum as a whole.)
20:10 – Morse thinks his amendment helps to address residents’ concerns about what might happen to Tin Can Hill. Steve Payne likes it. Cynthia Mufandaedza supports it too.
Shauna Morgan supports it, though she tries to point out this is a very early stage and reiterates that the MOU is not binding.
“We may get to a point where, as we’re digging into details, it becomes not viable or just not beneficial any more to continue looking at Tin Can Hill. That is still an option,” she says, even if the memorandum is signed.
Robin Williams supports Morse’s amendment. “It further reinforces the intention that we have as council,” he says, though it “doesn’t have legally binding teeth.”
Williams concludes: “It’s nice words, but I’m happy to add those nice words.”
20:05 – There are no questions for Warburton. End of presentations. There now follows discussion, which begins immediately with an amendment from Julian Morse.
Morse wants to add to the MOU: “New development should complement the natural setting through the careful siting of buildings, protection of existing vegetation, provision of landscaping, and connections to a public trail system.”
The introduction of this amendment means the discussion will now be ABOUT THE AMENDMENT first, not the MOU as a whole, just so you know.
20:03 – Rob Warburton, president of the city’s chamber of commerce, is last to present before councillors discuss. He and Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox are the only two of eight presenters to support the campus proposed on Tin Can Hill.
Warburton says Tin Can Hill’s proximity to downtown would be attractive to students and close enough to city amenities. “It’s not far. It’s far by Yellowknife standards, but it’s not that far,” he says.
He says if this is not supported, a campus could be delayed by another few years “that we frankly just don’t have, economically.”
20:00 – Councillor Morgan asks Macphail if her vision is of a dispersed campus across downtown. Yes, Macphail says enthusiastically, urging council not to “shy away from that option.”
Morgan, noting the current downtown Aurora College facilities ain’t great, asks Macphail what should be done differently.
“Continue with that model and instead improve the existing assets, infill the downtown, and collaborate with the city to provide lots of public amenity spaces and lots of improvements within our public space,” Macphail responds.
19:58 – Macphail says reading “the planning context” (the community plan and associated documents) demonstrates a downtown campus, spread across buildings, “would be a much better policy fit.”
Using an example from Cold Lake – where she grew up – Macphail argues huge sums of deferred maintenance for big, distinct campuses can adversely affect universities’ ability to pay for other things.
“I’d like you to make the downtown-gown connection,” she tells councillors, recommending the University of Winnipeg as a model to follow. She, like Tamlin Gilbert earlier, points to Wilfrid Laurier’s Brantford campus as a good example of her preferred approach.
19:54 – Macphail says the memorandum has good values of transparency and collaboration and should be praised for that. However, she says, including the transferring of Tin Can Hill to the GNWT for free, given the GNWT owes Yellowknife $12 million in municipal underfunding, “seems fiscally imprudent.”
She says she has “lingering questions” about phrases in the MOU like “limited development.” Tin Can Hill is technically a greenfield site, Macphail argues, and she points to a section of the community plan that states vacant lots in developed areas should be prioritized for building over greenfield sites – including institutional developments.
19:52 – Macphail, a city planner for two years, says she found out about the memorandum at the same time as the rest of the public and did not know about the proposal in advance, despite her old job.
19:51 – Libby Macphail is now presenting. Until February, she was a Yellowknife city planner. More than anyone presenting tonight, she knows the community plan and bylaws on which city development is based.
19:49 – Sharma quotes various municipal and territorial climate change goals. She implies building on green space is not in line with those statements, and says Yellowknife should learn from the mistakes of southern cities.
19:46 – “Destroying this area, even in part” would harm residents who live nearby, Sharma tells councillors. She says the GNWT is on the verge of being given “a blank cheque” for the area as the territory has yet to define, in any form, how the finished university campus will look.
“In my mind, there is no better solution than to use existing buildings and lots within the city’s downtown,” says Sharma. “These buildings should be retrofitted to meet green standards. This solution would benefit the entire community, including the opportunity to save a green space from being decimated … improving the physical appearance of downtown, improving foot traffic downtown, and supporting small businesses who have been struggling.”
19:43 – Amanda Sharma says she lives next to Tin Can Hill, is a daily trail user, and is strongly against the campus. “I just feel there are many better options out there that we’re not exploring,” Sharma says.
19:42 – The “entire interior of the hill will be gone,” says an impassioned Morehouse, who sighs loudly into the microphone. “On October 17 you are all up for re-election. Thank you,” he concludes.
Councillor Morgan asks him about the part of the presentation where the GNWT acknowledged the importance of maintaining public access. Morehouse immediately challenges her using a map showing proposed initial and future development. It’s a testy exchange.
“I’m sure we’ll be allowed to go up to the parking lot and there’ll be grass growing between it and the residence,” says Morehouse. “Between the buildings there will be green space,” he says.
Councillor Steve Payne asks if Morehouse would be in support if the city charged for the land. No, he says. Mayor Rebecca Alty cuts off the debate, based on the rules that govern presentations.
19:39 – Morehouse, immediately a character, says he has handed out a pamphlet to those in the room and accuses council of giving an area the size of downtown Yellowknife to Aurora College for free. (The memorandum does state the land would be transferred at no cost to the GNWT.)
19:38 – Taking away a portion of Tin Can Hill’s green space “would be an injustice without more public input,” Cameron concludes. Tyler Morehouse is up next.
19:37 – Greg Cameron presents next. He, too, feels this was a “behind closed doors” approach from the GNWT that was unacceptable.
(It’s worth pointing out that city staff, last week, did not sound remotely surprised by the GNWT’s presentation and indeed had a presentation of their own to follow it. It’s not clear how long city staff were part of the plan before last week’s announcement, but the announcement was effectively presented as a joint conclusion reached by the GNWT and the municipality.)
19:32 – For those keeping score at home, we’re on presentation three of eight before councillors open their own discussion of the memorandum. You have time to make popcorn.
19:31 – Councillor Shauna Morgan asks Gofenko: “Did you manage to see a video of Aurora College’s presentation to council last week, where they described some of the criteria they used to rule out certain sites?”
Yes, he says.
Morgan continues: “Are you disagreeing with the criteria that they used to arrive upon this site? Some people may say a central campus is silly … are you disagreeing on the criteria, that it doesn’t need to be a central campus or that has room for expansion?”
Gofenko says: “I don’t disagree with the criteria, I don’t consider myself qualified to decide that. But it is peculiar to me that when one of you asked which other sites were being considered, that wasn’t answered with a list of other sites were being considered. There’s a darkness here with regard to the options out there … and I believe there are reasons that are not in good faith, also.”
Gofenko says two ECE officials reached out to him anonymously to say this was done in a “hush-hush” way.
“I don’t know what the sites for consideration are,” he says. “That’s above my pay grade. [However] this is like shopping for the car you want, that has all the bells and whistles, but which you can’t afford.”
19:26 – “A vote in favour of this MOU is in fact a pre-approval,” Gofenko continues, summing up a widely held perception among residents that some officials insist is not the case.
While the MOU is not binding, it does clearly state signing the document would identify Tin Can Hill as the “intended site.”
“Clearly, this hasn’t been done in the right order,” says Gofenko.
19:25 – “Do not put the cart before the horse here and cut residents off at the knees,” Gofenko says, painting a picture of a particularly bad cart crash.
Putting all options on the table serves the public interest and will help residents be better-informed, he says. “We don’t want this site touched. There is no room to have it both ways here. Congestion and destruction will drive residents away.”
19:23 – Allan Gofenko, creator of a petition against the campus, says the GNWT “failed residents by avoiding consultation” about the proposal. “There has been no respect for residents in this process,” he says.
“The fact the proponents refused to speak to alternative sites shows a lack of transparency. I am calling on council to expect better.
“I use this site twice-daily, year-round … and I see others using this site every single day. It belongs to the residents. We maintain it, and many of us keep it clean and safe.
“We love this parcel of land the way it is, and we don’t want to lose any of it any more than we already have.”
19:21 – Acknowledging opening communication about Tin Can Hill as a location “has not gone very well” and opposition from residents “who see themselves as adversely affected is completely understandable,” Irlbacher-Fox argues a university and existing uses of Tin Can Hill can co-exist.
19:20 – It’s pro-hill. “It must be a campus that is land-based, including a body of water [that can ensure] Indigenous students and their culture are honoured and valued,” says Irlbacher-Fox.
She says Tin Can Hill as it stands “is not an accessible public green space and to frame it that way, I believe, is misleading.”
She continues: “The city has seen fit to privilege off-leash dogs and their owners. That immediately excludes other user groups.
“The Tin Can Hill location holds potential for a public institution that would likely facilitate broader public access not only to green space or to lake access, which we all know is sorely lacking in Yellowknife.
It would probably be able to provide access that’s trauma-informed, culturally safe, well-maintained and regulated for safety, and ensure the broadest accessibility possible.”
19:18 – Irlbacher-Fox sets out the “far-reaching” impacts a campus in Yellowknife can have, including the research dollars it can attract and the land-based education it can offer.
“A Yellowknife campus is sustainable economic development” at a precarious time, she says. “The city can’t afford to reject a Yellowknife campus. It also cannot afford to establish a campus that cannot expand, such as a downtown office tower.”
It’s still not 100-percent clear if this is going to be a pro-hill or anti-hill submission.
19:16 – Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, a Yellowknife resident for 27 years, is next to present. Setting out her credentials, she mentions her PhD from Cambridge University and her current presidency of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies. She isn’t affiliated with Aurora College, she says.
19:15 – While speakers are limited to five minutes, councillors are allowed to ask them questions. Julian Morse asks Gilbert to expand on the Brantford campus and why it would be such a good model to follow.
Gilbert argues that the university campus in Brantford revitalized a “desert” of an Ontario downtown, starting very small – with 39 students, he says – then gradually building programming while relying on downtown municipal infrastructure.
“They did a great job. They renovated a library, they took over a cinema and used that as a lecture hall, and they partnered with Conseco College, which provides aviation training,” he says. “They diversified to provide programming people are interested in. I think it’s a good example.”
19:13 – Gilbert, continuing, suggests a nice view will not be a primary consideration for prospective students.
He points to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus as an example of a better model to follow, then makes a husband-and-wife analogy that, while slightly difficult to follow, involves him concluding: “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.”
19:10 – Tamlin Gilbert is the first to present. He describes how, as a member of a Northlands condo corp, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the City of Yellowknife that gave the condo corp six weeks to communicate to members about “whether or not to go with the MOU.”
“We had many many months, even years, to decide how we wished to pursue the replacement of our infrastructure,” Gilbert says, referring to Northlands’ historic quandary about replacing water and sewer lines.
“Why has this council been given only one week to decide on an MOU that will last for 50 or 100 years? The MOU lays out clearly that the preferred site is on Tin Can Hill and we haven’t been given any indication as to why other sites have been rejected.”
Gilbert says there has been a lack of transparency and just a “glossy presentation” that did not declare any other options.
19:07 – The mayor is setting out the ground rules. You are, apparently, not allowed to speak disrespectfully of the Crown tonight, lest you were considering blaming Charles for this.
19:06 – There are eight presenters, one more than previously advertised. Rob Warburton, president of the city’s chamber of commerce – who has already said he’ll present in favour of the site – has been added to the agenda and will speak last.
All eight get five minutes each to present, plus an extra two minutes if councillors collectively agree they aren’t yet bored.
19:05 – Away we go.
19:03 – It’s a packed house and the meeting is a little late getting under way. (Listen, the university doesn’t open till 2025, there’s time.)
18:59 – Good evening! Ollie here. I’ll be guiding you through tonight’s events. Expect a series of presentations for and against the Tin Can Hill proposal (probably more of the “against” than the “for,” based on sentiment expressed to date, but you never know), followed by some chat among councillors and then a vote, though council could feasibly decide not to vote tonight and postpone.
We’ll post summaries of the most important bits here as we go on.