Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

City vs. GNWT: After the Failed Suit, What Next?

The dismissed bid for more political representation is just one part of the Mayor's ongoing push to create a more autonomous Yellowknife.

It may have been pure coincidence, but Justice L.A. Charbonneau gave Mayor Mark Heyck something of a gift by waiting until after the election to shoot down the City’s bid for more political representation in the legislative assembly. The day after Heyck was handed a solid mandate for the next three years, Charbonneau released her negative judgment of the mayor-led, council-approved initiative to redraw electoral boundaries.

It always seemed like something of a long shot, and in the levelheaded prose of a judge, Charbonneau systematically refuted the City’s main arguments: yes, all seven ridings in Yellowknife are underrepresented, but all things considered, a reasonable person could have set the current boundaries and the GNWT had given sufficient reasons to justify their decision.

The whole ordeal cost the City $18,000 in legal fees, though the total cost is likely much higher when you take into account in-kind work done by the City’s legal division. There’s also a chance that the GNWT will seek to have their costs covered by the City as well; they have two weeks to make a submission to that extent.

It wouldn’t have done Heyck any good had the decision been rendered ahead of the election. But post-municipal election, what’s done is done. In an in camera meeting on Tuesday, council voted unanimously not to appeal the decision.

“We were obviously disappointed but we respect the court’s decision,” Heyck tells EDGE. “We gave it our best shot and it’s time to move on.”

Part of broader vision

It wasn’t simply a sense of fairness that drove the City to push for more Yellowknife MLAs. The hope was more representation in the legislative assembly would make it easier for Yellowknife to push for increased autonomy and funding. That said, “there are other avenues, financially and legislatively, that we could take,” says Heyck.

Over the past year, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has been revising its community funding policies in a way that could see Yellowknife receive around $2.5 million more in infrastructure funding.

As Eleanor Young, assistant deputy minister of MACA, explained to council back in April: “We need to move towards a more needs-based approach to funding for all communities… The formulas need to be linked so there’s some relation between the capital you have on the ground, and operations and maintenance funding you receive.”

The model has largely been agreed on. But Heyck says the GNWT now needs to put their money where their mouth is, particularly so smaller communities don’t lose out in the shuffle: “If they’re going to adopt the model they’re going to have to adopt the budget that can fund the model.” He’s planning on writing to all would-be MLAs and making it an election issue.

The GNWT is also planning a comprehensive review of the Cities, Towns and Villages Act sometime in the coming years. This, hopes Heyck, will provide an opportunity to push for legislative changes beneficial to Yellowknife. For example, right now the City can’t collect a hotel tax and use the money for things like city branding and conference marketing, even though the hoteliers are behind the idea. The City also doesn’t have the legislative scope to make its own rules for municipal elections regarding things like expenditure caps and reporting requirements.

Ultimately the goal of the Heyck’s lobbying efforts (the failed case included) is to make Yellowknife a more autonomous political actor.

“It’s not just something we’re seeking,” says Heyck. “There’s a growing sense across Canada that local governments have a greater flexibility to meet needs and challenges people face, and should be given the ability to do so.”

It would have been easier had the City’s case succeeded. But Heyck plans to forge ahead nonetheless, perhaps a bit humbled and with $18,000 less to play with.