Even a casual observer of City administration in recent months can spot signs of an organization with a serious case of siege mentality.
It’s understandable. Public administration, especially at a municipal level, rarely gets raves, even if done well. The majority of citizens, especially in a city as transient as Yellowknife, are at best indifferent, while a vocal minority are actively hostile. And the criticism is not always entirely fair: many of the more visible problems blamed on the City — though by no means all — are as much a result of failures by territorial or federal governments as they are of dithering at the municipal level.
But with senior staff self-demoting or leaving, a series of fumbled major initiatives like the 50/50 lot civic plaza project and the Canada Winter Games bid, picayune but revealing squabbles over public bench removal, a general throwing up of hands over issues like public access to public waterfront, and a visible alienation between administration and council, City Hall has shown unmistakable signs of mission fatigue, and a retreat to purely defensive positions.
So that’s why — not to immediately dump a truckload of pressure on her before she’s even walked into her new office — the appointment of Sheila Bassi-Kellett as Senior Administrative Officer is a rare shot of good news.
Full disclosure: I don’t know Bassi-Kellett particularly well — we briefly lived on the same street and are well acquainted enough to exchange friendly chat in the grocery check-out line.
Like many Yellowknifers, I learned more about Bassi-Kellett in the summer of 2014, when she was mysteriously, summarily dismissed from her position as deputy minister of Human Resources for the GNWT. The public backlash around the incident — as EDGE reported at the time, Bassi-Kellett was dismissed because she refused to bow to political pressure from a minister to hire his preferred candidate — made a couple of things clear: Bassi-Kellett was well-respected (the premier had issued a glowing performance review a few weeks before her dismissal), and she had backbone.
This January, I met with the former bureaucrat-turned-consultant in a downtown cafe for a chat about her upcoming position. Informed in part by that conversation, and by other conversations with people who know her and have worked with her, here are a few reasons Bassi-Kellett’s appointment as SAO is a sign of hope:
1) She’s a longtime resident and volunteer (festivals, pet therapy for seniors, advocate for the homeless), who knows the place from top to bottom, at its worst and its best. Her first job here, after she arrived from Ontario in the mid-’80s, was waitressing at the Gold Range.
As a result of her years here, she tells me: “I love this city. I’ve raised a family here. I’ve gone through a very public shaming when I was fired from the government. But a lot of people stood up for me. I’ve gone through an incredible loss of having a child that my husband and I raised who died recently. That was really traumatic, and the support from this city has been amazing… So I love this city. This is more than a job for me.”
2) Love only gets you so far though. Bassi-Kellett also has a thorough academic and practical background in northern governance — she studied the subject at Queen’s before moving here.
“I was studying the work that the Dene Nation was doing at the time, preparing for the Dene-Metis Comprehensive Claim… [T]hat was part of what compelled me to come north.”
She was led to the subject by “inspirational professors who talked about the ability to design government that was meant to reflect the culture, the history, of who people were, pre-Colonial times. That was a really amazing thing. I tend to think in part it comes from two parents who were very much subjugated by English colonial power [Bassi-Kellet’s father is East Indian, her mother was Irish], so that’s something that was always in my consciousness as a kid growing up.”
3) At a time when one of the City’s biggest challenges involves reworking and revitalizing its relationship with the GNWT, Bassi-Kellett is also deeply experienced in intergovernmental affairs at the territorial/municipal level.
Her first job in government was with Municipal and Community Affairs — “at a time when [MACA] was pushing very heavily that local community governments be recognized as the third level of government in the territory. They were the ‘prime public authority’ — the catchphrase at the time. Government would respect locally elected officials and deal with them, as opposed to circumventing local hamlet councils.
“[As well,] I was part of a small, six-person working group set up to work directly to the minister [of intergovernmental affairs] on transferring authority to communities.
“After that I ended up going to Tulita — then [called] Fort Norman — and I lived there for about three years, and I was the SAO there so… A little different scale than Yellowknife but that was, honest to God one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. Because you never ever really knew how the day was going to unfold. It was just after the Sahtu Claim had been settled in 1993, so the politics were really exciting.”
4) She’s well aware of one of this city’s least discussed and most important issues: the Two Solitudes-style divide between its Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.
“The fact that the largest Indigenous population in the NWT lives in Yellowknife — I don’t know if that fact often registers with people. The relationship with Indigenous people — we’ve got to strengthen it. That to me is really important. So whether it’s with the Yellowknives right here on our doorstep… The GTC [Gwich’in Tribal Council] has an office just a few steps away. The GTC thinks it’s important to have an office here. That says a lot, right? Leadership is through here all the time from across the territory. There’s so much powerful stuff going on out there.”
That’s all admirable high-level vision stuff, but when asked what her main challenges will be, Bassi-Kellett’s first answer is this: “Reconciling cost of living with the economy and programs and services. Cost of living is frightening in this town.”
And that’s the caveat. For all of her experience and reputation, Bassi-Kellett is walking into a tough — some say thankless — job at a very tough time.
“I do remember the mid-’90s, when government had major deficits and everything seemed to be tanking — and then poof, the diamonds came in and saved the day. I’m sweating bullets over what’s saving the day now for us, or in the next 10 to 15 years.”
There’s plenty more to discuss — about new approaches to downtown revitalization, for instance — but it is all overshadowed by the fact that this is a thoroughly cowed town watching its main industry disappear, with no realistic replacement in sight.
There’s also the question of just how much an SAO can — or should — actually do to shape direction. After all, we elect city council to represent us. Nobody voted for Bassi-Kellett.
“Councils are elected, people put faith in them. The office of a councillor is a huge responsibility and a huge honour. So they come with high convictions, they come and form and shape a direction for the city to go in. I equate [being an SAO] with being like a deputy minister working for a minister: you have to bring some expertise to the table, but you’re not purely operational, just executing exactly what council has to say. You’re putting a spin on it, you’re bringing expertise and experience and value-added to the table, that can hopefully make a difference.
“You can’t please everyone,” Bassi-Kellett notes near the end of our conversation. “So get over that and just do the best you can with the information you have.”