A proposal to transfer 59 per cent of GNWT lands inside municipal boundaries to the City of Yellowknife received support from councillors on Aug. 23.
In a governance and priorities meeting, councillors and city staff discussed the proposal that would involve a formal application to the GNWT to transfer surveyed and unsurveyed lands, including roads and infrastructure; municipal head leases, such as waterfront and water‐lots; and growth management and special management reserve lands, which have public recreation and tourism potential.
The total area of the proposed transfer comprises about 11,400 acres, according to a city memorandum.
The city will not seek the transfer of former mine sites undergoing remediation work and Akaitcho Treaty 8 interim land withdrawal areas.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett told the virtual meeting that the city currently owns about 11 per cent of the land within its municipal boundary.
GNWT land (commissioner’s land) makes up 75 per cent of the land inside the boundary. The federal government owns 7.9 per cent and 5.8 per cent is privately owned.
However, because the city lacks the authority to administer all public unfettered lands inside the boundary, its “hands are tied” when pursuing development in line with the community plan.
“Since 2019, the city has actively advocated for the transfer of vacant unencumbered lands from commissioner’s lands inventory. We’re very pleased to see this included as part of the GNWT’s mandate in its term of office,” Bassi-Kellett said.
Under its Reduce the Municipal Funding Gap Mandate priority, the GNWT says it will “Develop a process guide for the transfer of lands within municipal boundaries” by winter 2021.
The city is working with the territorial government’s Department of Lands on developing a process for the transfer, which will differ from past practice where the municipality proposed transfers of individual parcels, subject to council and GNWT approval.
“That didn’t reflect on the overall autonomy and capacity of the city, and it meant we’ve been in a position many times where we needed land and couldn’t get it,” Bassi-Kellett said.
Mayor Rebecca Alty called the proposal a further step in devolution.
“The federal government had control over lands in the NWT and then the GNWT took control, and now it should be transferred to the city. As the GNWT was pitching to the feds when they wanted devolution of lands (they said) decision-making should be made closest to the people and that’s the same principle here,” she said.
Alty explained that the transfer bid is a win-win opportunity because it will be more efficient than doing piecemeal transfers and it would help retain revenue for the GNWT.
“Last year, we had a request for a quarry and it took well over a year for the GNWT to say it would lease that land to us. In the meantime, the businesses found different opportunities,” Alty said. “There’s a big benefit to the GNWT more so than for the city because there’s lost revenue opportunity for the GNWT. There’s lost income tax due to the lost business, lost corporate tax due to the lost business and they could lose potential federal transfers if jobs aren’t being created in the NWT — then people are moving elsewhere.”
Coun. Niels Konge called the proposal long overdue, saying that before he joined council in 2012 he didn’t realize how large the problem of land was for the city.
“As a contractor who was trying to be a developer, it was just like, ‘Why can’t we get land?’ The process is so difficult and so time consuming to get land,” he said. “It’s no wonder developers just give up. There always seems to be a lack of lots and land. I’m pleased the GNWT has finally seen the light and is agreeing to do this.”
Konge added that he hopes the land transfer effort will make Yellowknife a “better place to be” in the future, but said he won’t hold his breath on it.
Bassi-Kellett explained that, at least since 2020, the city has informed the Yellowknives Dene of municipal land applications and asked to hear any concerns before it took them to the Department of Lands.
The GNWT also has a Section 35 duty to consult with the Yellowknives on land issues.
“We want YKDFN to be aware of the land asks,” Bassi-Kellett said.
Council is scheduled to vote on the transfer proposal at its next meeting on Sept. 13.