North·In Depth

An 'extraordinary step': A closer look at the state of emergency in Yellowknife

On November 6, Paulie Chinna declared a state of emergency so the government could acquire the downtown building and convert it into a day shelter. That state of emergency has been extended multiple times, most recently through Jan. 28.

State of emergency was declared in November to create a new day shelter downtown

On Nov. 6, Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Paulie Chinna declared a state of emergency so the government could convert a vacant building in Yellowknife into a day shelter. That state of emergency has been extended multiple times, most recently through Jan. 28. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

This past fall, the Northwest Territories minister of Municipal and Community Affairs took what she said was an "extraordinary step" to help protect people who are homeless in Yellowknife.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, public health measures had led to reduced capacity at the city's existing shelters. Yellowknife's city council had rejected the territorial government's proposal to use the vacant mine safety building downtown as a day shelter, citing complaints from nearby businesses.  

Temperatures were dropping into the minus-twenties. There was no time for hand-wringing.

On Nov. 6, Paulie Chinna declared a state of emergency which allowed the government to convert the mine safety building into a day shelter. That state of emergency has been extended multiple times, most recently through Jan. 28.

But the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says resorting to this option says as much about the state of the territory's laws as it does about the government's efforts to address homelessness.

"On the one hand, they are using the emergency power as a workaround force for an urgent necessity, namely, to protect the lives and health of the homeless," said Michael Bryant. "On the other hand, a system requiring a workaround is almost by definition, unconstitutional." 

A state of emergency grants the minister considerable leeway. It gives her, among other powers, the ability to enter premises without a warrant, to fix the price of food and fuel, and to acquire private or public property — the latter of which Chinna did. 

Under the state of emergency, the territorial government was able to quickly convert the mine safety building into a day shelter with a 25-person capacity. According to the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, which runs the shelter, an average of 64 people use it every day.

'Exhausting all other avenues'

For Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, declaring a state of emergency was the most efficient path toward a new shelter space.

"Unfortunately, the timelines under the GNWT's (government of the Northwest Territories') [Community] Planning and Development Act really makes it a long process to get to go from having an idea to set something up, all the way to having something set up," said Alty. 

"So this was one way that the GNWT was able to get [a day shelter] up and running as fast as possible."

The state of emergency declaration 'was one way that the GNWT was able to get [a day shelter] up and running as fast as possible,' said Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Chinna told CBC that the state of emergency was declared after "exhausting all other avenues" and that it was the government's "last resort in order to address the homelessness within the city."

Alty said that before the state of emergency was initiated, she met with Chinna to discuss what it would mean. The mayor said she was assured the minister would not use her powers beyond addressing Yellowknife's shelter space issue. 

Precedent is 'risky for the future'

In Bryant's view the declaration was necessary, but it didn't match the scale of what was required, which was to create a new day shelter.

"They're using a bazooka to deal with something that requires something more focused," he said. 

The situation in Yellowknife, said Bryant, highlights a need to legislate "appropriate powers that are proportionate to what's needed." He said the government needs to get these in place to avoid abuses of power down the line.

The state of emergency declaration also set a precedent that is "risky for the future," said Bryant. The risk is that the government could declare a state of emergency when there isn't an emergency, and that this could "threaten the rule of law" and put "legal authorities in a position of having too much power." 

They're using a bazooka to deal with something that requires something more focused.- Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

To be sure, Yellowknife isn't the only Northwest Territories community with a shelter and housing issue. 

The YWCA NWT says family and child homelessness in the territory is at "crisis levels." In Fort Simpson, the new warming shelter building's owner said he would be paying out of pocket to bring his site up to code. 

Considering all this, and her powers during a state of emergency, why doesn't the minister take over enough property to house every N.W.T. resident who is homeless?

This question was put to Chinna. In an emailed statement she said that what happened in Yellowknife was "an extraordinary solution," and a temporary one.  

She said the territorial government and the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation "take a housing-focused approach" to addressing homelessness in small communities, in consultation with those communities.

In Bryant's view, using the blunt force of a state of emergency declaration to create options for people who are homeless in Yellowknife was, on balance, the right thing to do. 

"But, you know, there is a check on all this, and that's democracy," he said. "People can voice their opinion of how they think the government did during COVID at the ballot box." 

It's unclear what will happen to the new day shelter once the state of emergency finally lifts. Chinna hopes there will be a more permanent solution by the end of the winter.

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