The city’s iconic houseboat community on Yellowknife Bay, with Dog Island in the foreground and Jolliffe Island in the background.
NNSL file photo

When you can’t beat them, make them somebody else’s problem.

That’s what our municipal government is about to do with the city’s iconic floating community of houseboats and the inhabitants of Jolliffe Island.

These folks could soon be under the jurisdiction of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation when the Akaitcho land claim and self-government process is concluded.

Last week we reported the city and the YKDFN are proposing to strike a deal that would see Ndilo, Jolliffe Island and the eastern shore of Great Slave Lake removed from the city boundary and given to the YKDFN in exchange for a big chunk of land to the west and south of the city. The claim includes a significant portion of the waters of Yellowknife Bay.

The land swap means the city will be receiving new territory to do with as it pleases but it could also signify an abandonment of its ambitions to assert control over the houseboat rebels of Yellowknife Bay.

Thus far, these intrepid floating residents have had great success repelling attempts by the City of Yellowknife to regulate them.

Many residents might remember when the City of Yellowknife tried to assert jurisdiction over the houseboaters through the courts.

That failed in 2000 when a territorial judge ruled that the law did not provide the territorial government (including the subordinate municipal government) with the authority to regulate activities on Great Slave Lake.

The issue resurfaced again in 2013, when the City of Yellowknife and the territorial government slapped trespass notices on a handful of houseboats in the face of a houseboat-building cottage industry on the Giant Mine boat launch.

Then there was much talk about the Yellowknife Harbour Plan that sought to seriously gentrify the city’s waterfront.

The plan called for a water taxi to give public access to Jolliffe Island, an arts and culture district, boardwalks, fancy boutiques – and most relevantly – regulation over houseboat development and city jurisdiction over the Yellowknife “harbour.”

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada gave the city $400,000 to set up a harbour planning committee with a goal of eventually forming a harbour authority – led by the city but with the blessing of multiple governing bodies and the Yellowknives Dene.

But as far as we can tell, all that planning has come to naught.

We at Yellowknifer need to go on the record here: These liveaboarders are not ne’er-do-wells or water squatters or anything like that.

They’re fantastic people for the most part, grinding out a living with enough solar electricity to power two laptops and a cellphone. Ingeniously repossessing old propane tanks to float their homes and employing small generators to pump lake water into barrels to serve their daily needs.

They are contributing members of society, many of whom have full-time jobs, families and kids. They make great contributions to our city’s artistic scene and are a massive tourist attraction.

But they avail themselves of municipal services like roads, schools and recreational services, without paying property taxes.

This is astonishingly unfair to the thousands of Yellowknifers who dutifully file tax returns each year.

In an ideal world, they’d fork over a docking fee of a certain amount of cash per foot per season, maybe adhere to a set of houseboat building codes and pay insurance on their floating structures – just like many other legitimate houseboat communities across the country. Is that so much to ask?

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Does the YKDFN have the desire to assert control over the houseboaters? Or will the jurisdictional jibber jabber that’s characterized the debate thus far persist into the future.

Only time will tell. But two things are certain: the City of Yellowknife is poised to unload a decades-old headache, and the houseboaters will have a much tougher time saying no to the Yellowknives Dene.