Earlier this year, Yellowknife city council spent hours debating whether or not to allow work camps, which are currently prohibited in the city’s community plan.

So when Kam Lake resident Aaron Reid heard from neighbours that efforts were under way to build a work camp on Utsingi Drive, such as arranging for service hook-ups to the site and for trailers, he was confused. 

“It took me a bit by surprise as there’s been no public mention, other than the last note in May, where city council directed the administration to draft a zoning by-law amendment allowing for their use in Kam Lake,” said Reid in an email to Cabin Radio. 

Reached by phone, Reid said he understood between 100 and 200 workers were expected to stay in the new project.  

“A sizeable number of people,” he said. “And it’s flying under the radar.” 

Approached by Cabin Radio for more information, the City of Yellowknife said property owners on Utsingi Drive had applied for a development permit to build workers’ accommodation. The city did not specify the number of units requested under the permit. 

Has the bylaw amendment allowing work camps in Kam Lake been passed? 

No, according to the mayor and the city. What has been approved in Kam Lake is workers’ accommodation, not a work camp. 

So what’s the difference? 

According to the city’s bylaw definition, worker accommodation is “a facility constructed to provide housing for workers in the form of complete dwelling units, typically for related business for an appropriate project, term or seasonal purpose.” 

By the definition included in the city’s community plan, a work camp is a “temporary and moveable structure built to accommodate workers for a specific project or job. Usually work camps are located in remote areas with little access to permanent dwellings.”

Work camps also allow commercial kitchens and dorms, said Mayor Rebecca Alty.

Still, you could be forgiven for having trouble differentiating between the two terms. 

We asked Rob Warburton, who has been outspoken about the need for work camps for years, why work camps are necessary when worker accommodation has been an option for developers for years. 

“The fundamental difference is that a camp is temporary… it comes on a truck on a skid, you plug it in, you use it,” Warburton said. “It doesn’t require all the development steps that a permanent structure would require, because it’s not permanent. On paper, they may look the same, but practically, they’re very different things.”

‘A while away’ from work camps

What constitutes permanence isn’t defined by the bylaw or community plan, so it’s not clear how this is enforced. 

But according to Warburton, the fact that temporary structures for workers are forbidden has for years held back Yellowknife’s housing supply and infrastructure projects.

“Every other jurisdiction in the country does this,” he said. “And we do not. Which is weird. Industry is telling us that this is badly needed.”

There is also the concern that construction and trades workers are competing with residents for increasingly limited housing and rental options. 

“This is why I brought the motion forward,” said Warburton, regarding people who think worker accommodation should be enough for developers. “We keep saying we have ways to do this, but the industry that’s literally doing it is telling us it’s not working.”

This need is expected to grow over the next few years as major projects, such as the remediation of Giant Mine, progress. 

“Right now, the bylaw doesn’t meet the need we’re going to see in the next couple of years as projects keep coming in,” said Warburton. “Mobile work is a fact of life everywhere else in the country.” 

There hasn’t been a date set for the next step of the process to review the bylaw. Council is still waiting on a memo from city staff.

“There have been no changes to the community plan bylaw or the zoning bylaw to include them yet,” clarified Alty. 

“Those amendments would have to come forward to council and be discussed publicly. We’re a while away from that, but in the meantime, workers accommodations are allowed.”

As that process continues, Yellowknife residents will continue to see structures going up for incoming workers – structures they can expect to stick around for a while. 

To those who are just taking notice of what’s being built in Kam Lake, Warburton said: “You’re just seeing the physical manifestation of we’ve been discussing, policy and process-wise, for months. It’s not new.”

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 15, 2023 at 06:05

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories
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