Delayed opening of N.W.T. seniors home blamed on 'arbitrary' and 'unaccountable' fire marshal's office

Rob Warburton, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, is calling for legislative change to the fire marshal for legislative change, something the N.W.T. government says is already underway.

Yellowknife chamber of commerce president says office is where 'money goes to die'

The Fort Good Hope nine-plex was originally set to open in March 2021, but due to 'a technical difficulty' found by the office of the fire marshal, residents were never cleared to move in. The building is now set to open in March 2022. (GNWT cabinet communications)

A new nine-plex seniors centre was set to open in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., last February. 

But despite an official opening on Feb. 16, 2021 — with Housing Minister Paulie Chinna and Julie Green, minister responsible for seniors, both attending— no seniors ever moved in. 

In June, Cara Bryant, a spokesperson from the housing corporation, said the centre's new opening date was "by end of summer." 

Bryant cited at the time an inspection conducted prior to residents moving in "leading to preliminary approval for occupancy."

During a later "pre-occupancy inspection" from the office of the fire marshal, however, "a technical issue was identified," and occupancy was not permitted.

The issue, according to a recent email exchange with the Housing Corporation, was related to "fire protection, signage and exiting."

In the fall sitting of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, Minister Chinna said the centre is now on track to open in March 2022. 

At least one prominent business person believes the saga is just another example of a failure of the office of the fire marshal. 

Rob Warburton, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said shutting project down at the last minute is a common feature of the office.

"It's a place where your money goes to die," he said.

'Arbitrary' and 'unaccountable'

In addition to investigating fires and fire-related risk management, the office of the fire marshal reviews construction plans and inspects buildings to make sure they're up to code.   

Warburton says that often leads to delays and deferrals. 

"Many building and investment projects that the business community would like to make just never get off the ground," he said in a presentation to the standing committee on economic development and environment in December, pointing to the office of the fire marshal as a major barrier.

"If they do manage to get started, then they must face an arbitrary, unaccountable and unknown cost structure by submitting to the whims of the fire marshal's office."

Warburton is calling on the office to create an appeal process. 

As it stands, he said builders and developers must either comply with the office's recommendations, or go to court. 

"The appeal process is to go to the minister but the minister is never going to override a decision or expert, that's never happening," he told the committee. 

Barriers to improving the city

As Chamber of Commerce president, Warburton said he hears frequent complaints from business owners, developers and property owners about the difficulties of working with the fire marshal's office.

"I think there's a lot of very small projects that don't happen just because it's too uncertain," he said. "It feels like here if you want to build something and kind of try to improve the city, there are all these barriers to doing it, particularly this office."

Warburton pointed to the $21-million Hay River arena built for the 2018 Arctic Winter Games as another example. 

The fire marshal's office signed off on the arena only two weeks ahead of opening ceremonies. At the time, they said the main problem was a stairwell not being up to code. The office's signoff came three months behind schedule.

Rob Warburton, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, is calling for legislative change to the office of the fire marshal. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, made similar comments in a November sitting in the legislative assembly, saying he "regularly" hears complaints that the N.W.T. 's fire marshal office is more difficult to work with than those in other territories. 

He asked why the office is quashing projects in their final stages rather than collaborating with designers, architects and builders throughout the projects' development.

He pointed to the still unopened Fort Good Hope nine-plex and the smudging room at the North Slave Correctional Complex in Yellowknife as examples. 

In the latter case, the department of justice denies that delays are related to the fire marshal. 

Spokesperson Ngan Trinh points instead to COVID-19 related supply chain issues. She said NSCC is waiting for a new sprinkler head for the room, and once that arrives they can seek final inspection. 

The smudging room was scheduled to open in March 2021. Trinh said other cultural programs have been available to inmates in the meantime.

Legislative change underway

The office of the fire marshal, under the department of Municipal and Community Affairs' jurisdiction, declined CBC's request to interview the fire marshal. 

Spokesperson Jay Boast said that the office "acts as a resource to provide clarity to developers and professionals" on how to address any "departures" from proper code. 

On why the office seems to only become involved in a project's final stages, Boast said that without a "full plan" being submitted, "pre-submission meetings and partial reviews are available to assist resolving challenges."

Responding to Johnson's comments in the Assembly, MACA Minister Shane Thompson said the department would consider change in an updated Fire Prevention Act — one of the pieces of legislation that informs the office of the fire marshal's work.

The department is currently in the engagement phase of updating that document. The phase is expected to be completed by March 2022, according to a follow-up email from MACA spokesperson Jennifer Young.

She said the department anticipates introducing the bill to amend the Fire Prevention Act in October 2023 and that it hopes to have the legislation come into effect before the end of the 19th Legislative Assembly. 

Young said that appeal processes will be considered as part of that work. 

Making the legislative change "should be fixable" Warburton said, noting the request isn't asking the government for money. 

But he said he was told it could be six years before the legislative change takes effect. 

"For something like that to take six years, just that tells me it's just not important and not a priority."

"There seems to be just a complete lack of will to change anything and I don't understand why."


Natalie Pressman is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. Reach her at: