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Yellowknives want sand pits; city choked

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 21/05) - A rift is widening between City Hall and the GNWT over a cabinet minister's decision to grant the Yellowknives Dene access to a parcel of land popularly known as the "sand pits."

The Yellowknives Dene want to build a hotel and a residential neighbourhood there. The city's 2004 general plan, however, calls for a future industrial park on the spot.

Yellowknives community negotiator Fred Sangris says the sand pits is an important heritage site for the Yellowknives. - Mike W. Bryant/NNSL photo

The city also wants to build an airport bypass road there - the sand pits are a short distance past the Yellowknife airport - linking Kam Lake industrial area to Highway 3.

Van Tighem said none of the city's plans for the area ought to be news to McLeod.

The same day Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Michael McLeod authorized the Yellowknives' Deton' Cho Corporation to begin geotechnical surveys of the area, Mayor Gord Van Tighem said the minister also signed into law the city's long-awaited 2004 General Plan. The date was Jan. 10.

Van Tighem said the apparent conflict is making it difficult for the city to figure out what McLeod wants them to do.

"Is this the time the GNWT raises its big fist and says, 'if you guys won't do it then we will?'" wondered Van Tighem.

To his knowledge, Van Tighem said, MACA has always advised the city when a third party expresses an interest in acquiring land for development.

In this case, Van Tighem said the city didn't learn of the Yellowknives' intentions until after the fact, when the city received a copy of a letter from McLeod to the Deton' Cho Corporation approving the geotechnical work.

There's a "cover-your-butt section in the letter," Van Tighem said, advising that the land is subject to certain city regulations and bylaws, but McLeod never approached him about the Yellowknives' plan.

Adding to his frustration, Van Tighem said the city had a long talk with Yellowknife Airport officials a year ago - for which, as Minister of Transportation, McLeod is also responsible.

It was ultimately agreed that a hotel shouldn't be built in the vicinity because it might hurt hotels already operating downtown.

Besides, the area isn't an appropriate place for commercial and residential developments.

"If you look at the city's zoning bylaw, you don't put hotels in an industrial park," said Van Tighem.

"It's at the end of a runway. Right now (the area) is high-noise recreational."

The matter has received considerable attention in the legislative assembly the last several days, where three out of the four Yellowknife MLAs questioned McLeod on his "cavalier" attitude towards the city.

"Was it really in the sense of good relationships and goodwill that we would only copy the city on a matter as significant as this?" asked Great Slave MLA Brendan Bell on Thursday.

McLeod, as he repeated several times to questions from MLAs, said there was no requirement for him to contact the city.

"We probably meet with the City of Yellowknife more than we do with any other municipality in the Northwest Territories," said McLeod.

"In this case, there was no requirement for me to inform the city that we provided access."

Outside the legislative assembly, McLeod continued to insist that there is nothing unfair about his department's dealings with the city.

"We go out of our way to meet with them when they have questions," said McLeod, adding that the permission to survey given to Deton' Cho was part of a "normal process."

Earlier in the day, Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay - who was the first to raise the issue - went after Premier Joe Handley, who had joined McLeod in a meeting with the Yellowknives about their plans for the sand pits.

Ramsay wondered why the premier didn't excuse himself from the meeting because he also serves the Yellowknives as their MLA.

Handley quickly challenged Ramsay on a point of order, insisting there was no conflict on his part.

"I am the MLA for the Yellowknives, but I am also the MLA for a good portion of Yellowknife city," said Handley.

Ramsay later said he didn't think Handley was in conflict. It was just a matter of "perception."

The Yellowknives, meanwhile, say they just want a piece of the development game the city has enjoyed for decades.

Community negotiator Fred Sangris said the sand pits area has been an important heritage site for the Yellowknives Dene for many generations. He said the land they want to develop is relatively small - about 64 acres.

"We own all the lands here, although the GNWT and city have a taken up a lot of the land for their own interests," Sangris said.

"We're asking the city and GNWT in good gesture to work with us faithfully to make this a reality," he said.

"If there are any land applications from anybody else, they should put them on hold and make the Yellowknives Dene a priority."