Territorial legislative rules are constraining the ability of municipalities to more efficiently manage their own communities, say Yellowknife political leaders.

While the issue has come up in the past, the latest leader to voice concern over devolving powers is Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson.

In the legislative assembly on March 11, Johnson said Yellowknife has the capacity to deal with land value taxes, liquor regulations and voting rights but it lacks the power.

The MLA said the structure of community governments allows them to be more nimble than the GNWT and that their services “on the ground” are more important than much of the work of the legislative assembly.

But the GNWT hasn’t given community governments sufficient power because, for one thing, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) hasn’t brought forward relevant legislation.

“I would like MACA to engage discussions on a city charter with them. I would like to have conversations about devolving powers,” Johnson said. “I can’t foresee a legislative assembly where there will ever be agreement on liquor, yet I believe there is a path forward where we give communities control over what they want their liquor regulations to look (like).”

He asked MACA Minister Paulie Chinna if there are plans to update the Cities, Towns and Villages Act and other related legislation in the life of the current assembly.

Chinna responded that the act won’t be updated by the existing government.

For Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, amendments or updates to the Cities, Towns and Villages Act, from which the city derives its authority, would, among other things, help it push through legislation faster. In the current legislative structure, changes move at a very slow pace, if they move at all.

Alty referred to an issue Johnson raised in the assembly relating to a vote in support of permanent residents being able to vote in elections. On March 9, 2020, Yellowknife council carried a motion on voting, after Johnson had earlier presented the idea to councillors.

“It passed in the sense that we support it but now it’s up to the GNWT to change the legislation to allow us to do that. The ball’s in their court on that one. The Local Authorities Elections Act dictates who can vote in municipal elections,” she said.

More delegation of powers needed

Another issue over which the city would like authority is vacant commissioner’s land inside municipal boundaries. If the city had jurisdiction, it could potentially add more residential areas. Currently, Yellowknife must ask the Department of Lands to transfer land to it by parcels.

“We’re asking the GNWT to delegate it one more step (to us). Land within our boundaries should be transferred to the municipality, excluding Akaitcho land claim withdrawals,” Alty said.

One “flagship success” the city has had in trying to take on more powers was with the hotel levy, a move that allows municipalities in the NWT to impose a tax of up to four per cent on tourism accommodations to generate additional revenue.

It was the result of an amendment to the Cities, Towns and Villages Act that was passed by the NWT legislature in November 2018.

“That simple change that wouldn’t seem like it would cause much disagreement took more than 10 years (to push through),” Alty said. “One of the communities didn’t think it was a good idea so we had to consult with everyone to get everyone on board. It took that many years to communicate and educate the stakeholders to get the political buy-in at the territorial level.”

Next step city charter

A city charter is one solution to more powers and getting things done faster, Johnson and Alty believe.

A charter could take on many forms, but Alty cited the charters of Edmonton and Calgary and the City of Toronto Act that gave those cities more flexibility and authority to manage their own affairs.

“Here in the NWT we’re not at that level yet. We’re trying to get the GNWT on board to consider a legislative change,” the mayor said. “We’re not looking to get health or education delegated to the city. We’re looking to get more municipal government-specific legislation delegated to us.”

When the current cabinet and premier were elected in fall 2019, Yellowknife council sent them a letter outlining its priorities and a city charter was among them. The council again met with cabinet last summer to discuss the idea but after their mandate letters were released in September, a city charter wasn’t included in MACA’s letter.

“I know it’s a new idea so it will take some time to get traction,” Alty said. “MACA staff are meeting later this month to discuss it so we’ll see where it goes.”

In April, Alty hopes to join the virtual Massey Cities Summit, where participants will discuss the changing role of municipalities in the context of Canadian federalism.

“(Cities) are creatures of provinces or territories. They only have authority based on what the province or territory gives them,” Yellowknife’s mayor said. “Like when Doug Ford became Ontario premier, he cut the number of Toronto city council members and he decreased the number of wards, which he was legally allowed to do.

“That might have been true when the constitution was written back in the day, but today cities are more mature and deserve more legislative authority. This conference will discuss how cities can get more of that authority.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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