Alpha Northern City

On EDGE: Opinion

Jack Danylchuk

It’s time to think of Yellowknife as a city state, independent of the territorial government, dealing directly with Ottawa and the leadership of neighbouring First Nations on questions of mutual interest.

We would have to relinquish the title of capital of the Northwest Territories of course, but after Yellowknife decamps, it won’t mean much, and it will be even less relevant when the balkanization of the territory is complete.

Yellowknifers must know this instinctively – it would explain their aversion to territorial elections. Why vote for politicians who obsess endlessly over amendments to arcane legislation and federal support for a highway to nowhere or a moribund resource project.

I’m not talking about the city states of the ancient world, although Athens/Sparta/Florence of the North do resonate nicely, or the Vatican, but more along the lines of Buenos Aires, an autonomous city, independent of the surrounding province of the same name, and a designated alpha world city.

The title adds a bit of swagger to the stride of Porteneos, who are not known for modesty, and are often accused of arrogance by residents of lesser burgs. The charge is false, of course, based on envy, just as similar charges against ‘Knifers are without merit.

The potential advantages of independence are many, among them a working 911 emergency number.

If the GNWT chooses to move its semi-annual gong show to Fort Smith, or Hay River, or Inuvik, and build a new legislative assembly there, Gino Pin’s space palace on the pond would convert nicely into the classiest hotel/casino north of 60.

Fish from Great Slave Lake could be the city’s official food, the centerpiece of a bold new cuisine based on the flavours of the subarctic boreal forest. Imagine it: The autonomous city of Yellowknife, showcase for sustainability in a challenging environment.

This notion has occurred to others, Mayor Gordon Van Tighem among them. The mayor was in Banff last year at the invitation of some American city planners who wanted to hear him hold forth on the subject of sustainable communities.

“Now,” the mayor asked his rapt audience, who will hold their annual meet and greet this year in the city that gold diggers built on the rocky shore of Great Slave Lake, “how do I become a spokesperson for sustainability?

“In the Territory we have 48,000 residents in 33 communities spread over a huge land mass. Do any of you need, or can you even envision 33 water treatment plants, 33 sewage treatment centers and land fills, 33 fire halls, nursing stations schools etc., for 50,000 residents?

“This does not sound too sustainable to me,” the mayor said. “So, I will focus on my own city, where we have enjoyed some success in an area of Canada that is a net receiver of climate change impacts.

“For three straight years, from 2007 – 2009, the Corporate Knights honored the City of Yellowknife with its award as Canada’s Most Sustainable Small City,” the mayor continued, and thumping the city’s drum, added, “the only city to win more than once – so far.”

Sustainability in a Small City Setting is the title Mayor Van Tighem gave his talk to the planners, but the subtext suggests that he was thinking Sustainability of a Small City State. Questioned about the import of his words, the mayor chuckled and referenced his file of anecdotes.

“I was discussing a program with federal bureaucrats and wondered why it made no mention of Yellowknife,” Van Tighem recalled, “and one of them said: ‘we think of Yellowknife as a city state.’ If that’s so, I said, give us the enabling legislation.”

The question of Yelowknife’s place in the territorial firmament came up again last fall when the newly-elected premier and MLAs rushed to meet with aboriginal leaders on devolution, but ignored the territory’s largest population centre.

Van Tighem enquired, and was told that Yellowknife’s place was with the NWT Association of Communities. Technically, that’s true, but when was the last time a Yellowknifer gave serious thought to issues in Fort Smith, or Hay River, or Inuvik. It’s time to cut the territory loose and run up a new banner: Yellowknife, Alpha Northern City.

 Jack Danylchuk is a journalist and since 2000, a fairweather resident of Yellowknife. He admits to a deep affection for the city between the bays, but also believes everyone needs frequent trips away to keep the experience in perspective.

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