Mark Heyck doesn’t get the instant recognition that someone with the international media exposure of Rob Ford might expect. But with just a little prompting, the mayor can put Yellowknife on the mental maps of total strangers in distant places.
“I got some puzzled looks when I told people where I was from,” Heyck says, recalling a spring break visit to Florida with his family. But when he told them his city is home base for Ice Road Truckers, and Ice Pilots, he watched recognition light their faces.
“Reality TV has been a huge benefit to the city. We’re a relatively small, isolated, and fairly remote community so any attention that makes people aware that we’re here is welcome. It has been a very good thing for Yellowknife to gain attention through popular culture,” he says. “We hope to build on that.”
Heyck isn’t the first native son to wear the city’s chain of office, or the youngest. But he is as firmly rooted here as the forest on Tin Can Hill, his childhood playground when his father Henry worked for Con Mine and the family, his mother Sermin, and sisters Anya and Yasemin lived at the mine’s lower camp. He never thought seriously about living anywhere else, even while studying history at McGill in Montreal.
His win last October was no surprise, but it was not as overwhelming as it might have been, given his experience and former mayor Gordon Van Tighem’s tapping of Heyck as a worthy successor. In fact, the combined vote for Tim Doyle and Paul Falvo was more than Heyck received and the new council was loaded with strong personalities critical of how the city was being managed.
Given the strong council personalities, the absence of controversy in the first year of Heyck’s administration “suggests that people are working well together,” according to former city councillor Shelagh Montgomery. After a decade in municipal and territorial politics, she says Heyck has honed his skill as a negotiator and mediator.
“He’s a very personable fellow who knows what the job of a politician is. It’s not about micro-managing what’s going on at City Hall; it’s about creating relationships,” Montgomery says, adding he also knows “what can actually be done at City Hall and where you have to create partnerships with other orders of government and people within City Hall.”
Heyck was bound to two of the most contentious issues: the downtown district heating plan and Bob Long, the abrasive Senior Administrative Officer whose personal style upset people in and out of City Hall. One of the new council’s first acts was to fire Long and sharply curtail the heating plan. Since then, Heyck’s ride seems to have been as smooth as his Canada Day cruise down Franklin in an open convertible.
The first year has been “busy, and challenging,” says Heyck, “but enjoyable. We had six new councillors on a steep learning curve. We went right into budget deliberations and it was a good opportunity for council to immerse itself in all the things that the City does. Since then, council has gained a better understanding of process, procedure and governance model. They are hitting their stride, getting to know each other.”
There is much to be proud of, he says: biting into the city’s $70 million infrastructure deficit in everything from roads to water and sewer pipes, getting the Northlands project underway, the water treatment plant, as well as community engagement on Pilot’s monument and the dock and improved communications between the City and Yellowknifers.
Unlike Toronto’s top politician, there are no photos of Mark Heyck allegedly smoking crack circulating social media, but as mayor he gets more attention. For the most part, he has enjoyed the experience and seems unflappable.
“How the media treats a politician is up to the politician on how they approach the media and the public in general,” he says. “If you take the approach that you will be open and transparent and accessible as much as possible, and open to different viewpoints, you help mitigate the aggressive stance that the media or public can take on an issue.
City Hall has opened up under Heyck, with regular updates on council agendas on FaceBook and Twitter, and on Tuesday mornings after council meetings, the mayor provides a summary of the issues to the media. Communications has been added to the function of the economic development office.
“There was a policy in place towards the end of the last term, whereby the mayor was the sole spokesman for the City. One of the first things I told the staff was that we should be open with media and provide as much information as possible on any issue.
Open Atmosphere at City Hall
“We’ve tried to achieve a very open atmosphere at City Hall. That was one of the challenges we saw in the last term of council. There was a breakdown in communication between City Hall and the community and internally between administration and council.
“From top to bottom in the organization, you need an effort to make that kind of transformation. When we started the hiring process for a new SAO, the notion of finding someone who could act as a bridge between council and administration was a top-of-mind priority.”
The communication staff has been promoting the city and encouraging residents to be proud of where they live, with the ‘Our Yellowknife’ campaign – a series of cameos featuring the city’s not-so-ordinary people, and videos showing vignettes of life in Yellowknife being distributed through social media to a broad audience.
Response has been positive, says Heyck, “from people who have never been in Yellowknife and had no idea the city is so big, so cosmopolitan with so much to do, to people who moved away and miss the city, and people who live here now boasting about the city and sharing the videos and pictures, and telling people what a beautiful place it is to live.”
As a native-born Yellowknifer, Heyck has observed the city’s evolution over the last 20 years, from the era when there were two mining operations within the municipal boundaries.
“Having deep roots, coming from a mining family, understanding where we got our start and how far we’ve come from our humble beginnings, gives me a perspective on the path the city has followed and a sense of where we might go from here,” he says.
A recent report on the economic future of the Northwest Territories, co-authored by Van Tighem and former premier Joe Handley, saw more of the same in the crystal ball: continued reliance on government jobs and the contradictory notion of ‘sustainable’ non-renewable resource extraction.
Yellowknife would occupy the centre of that universe, as it does today – to the chagrin of smaller NWT communities and politicians who see consensus governance as a process of back-scratching and horse-trading for government jobs.
“As a territory we need to get past the eternal conflict between Yellowknife and the rest of the territory,” Heyck says. “We recognize that when the rest of the territory does well, Yellowknife does well and when Yellowknife does well, we would hope that other regions prosper, as well.”
In its submission to the electoral boundaries commission, the City argued for two additional seats in the NWT legislative assembly – a recommendation the commission ignored in a final report that proposed nothing more than a realignment of electoral boundaries.
Political equality for YK
“We would like to see more equity,” says Heyck. “We’re not looking for a perfect share in the legislature to reflect our population, but we feel that it’s important not just as a community but that ridings be adequately represented in the legislature.”
“One of the goals council set was to assess Yellowknife within the territorial context, not only in representation in the legislature but how formula funding works, and how legislation affects Yellowknife, versus other parts of the territory.
“I think there’s a case for Yellowknife to be treated somewhat differently. We’re a creature of the government as a municipality, but we’ve seen in other parts of the country where one city in a province is so different from other communities that authority is devolved to that municipality. Toronto is a prime example of that. The government of Ontario created a City of Toronto Act, which gave the city special powers that other municipalities don’t have.
“It’s a natural progression; we’ve seen over the past several decades that there is a movement from smaller communities into regional centres and the capital. That’s ongoing, and I don’t see it changing. I think there’s also a recognition required that Yellowknife absorbs residents from other communities, so when discussions take place at the territorial level, it should be recognized that we provide programs and services to people from other communities. That should be part of the discussion about local government funding.”
Social Media Mayor
Heyck is the first mayor of the social media age, and has embraced the medium to announce everything from street closures for water-line repairs, to parties in the civic plaza and important items on the council agenda.
“So many people are connected through social media you can put it there at no cost and it organically spreads through the community,” says Heyck. “It’s also a fantastic way to get feedback on the things we’re trying to do. We’ve put online surveys out there, most recently on the dog bylaw, and we had close to 800 responses. People aren’t afraid to let their opinions be known and we always collect it.”
“One thing I’m proud of that our staff have undertaken is a model for community engagement that has different levels of consultation. We’ve tested that (model) with the redevelopment of Pilot’s Monument and the Government Dock, and it has worked really well.”
The new communications strategy answered criticism that city hall wasn’t talking to the city, which Heyck attributes to “an assumption that bringing an issue before council was sufficient. But by that point you would wind up in an adversarial environment. Starting with a blank slate and asking people what they want is a better model. It leads to an outcome that the community, hopefully, is happy with.”
As much as social media, email and the internet are a blessing, they’re also a black hole that swallows free time. At the top of the things Heyck has learned since becoming mayor is the volume of correspondence that flows to his inbox.
“It’s astounding,” he said. “It seems like a small thing, but there are days when it dominates. I put away my phone when I go into a meeting, and after an hour there can be 30 unread emails. Just trying to stay on top of that takes up a good chunk of my evenings. During the day, it’s a real challenge. That was the biggest surprise.”
Heyck’s email program goes back 10 years to when he was first elected to council. About 40 per cent of all the emails have come in in the last eight months. “That’s been eye-opening – just how much correspondence there is; you learn to manage that – what’s a must read and what might be nice to read.”
Huge Time Demands
Gord Van Tighem made the mayor’s job a full-time position and the demands on the mayor’s time go far beyond regular office hours. It’s impossible to stop being mayor and Heyck is on duty, even when he goes to the bank, or the store.
“I expected it, but not to the degree that, or the amount of time it occupies with receptions and events, social calls. It’s calmed down a bit now, but in the first month after I was elected it would take me 45 minutes to buy a quart of milk.”
Other than when he’s asleep, being mayor “is pretty much non-stop. It’s one of the challenges of the job, making sure you have enough personal and family time. Kids and partners are always a top priority in my life. Achieving that balance.
“That’s one thing that social media has layered on top of all the other things. When you’re trying to be active on there and stay on top of that, getting agendas out on FaceBook and Twitter, try to answer questions. It’s all-consuming. But I’m enjoying it. One of the challenges of being a councillor is balancing a day job with council duties. That makes being mayor easier; focus is on the city, not my job, or career.”
But sometimes when he takes in the view from his office, across the causeway to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, where he maintained the website, Heyck finds himself missing the quiet time of his old job.
“I used to be able to put my headphones on, close my office door and do my stuff, stare at code for eight hours a day,” he says. “I can’t do that anymore.”