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'Ripple effects:' Yellowknife sporting clubs on time out during labour dispute

YELLOWKNIFE — Some sporting clubs in the Northwest Territories capital are on the sidelines as a labour dispute between the city and its unionized employees nears the end of its fourth week.
The Yellowknife Community Arena is seen in Yellowknife, Feb. 27, 2023. The arena and Yellowknife Curling Club are among municipal facilities that have been closed during a labour dispute between the City of Yellowknife and its unionized employees. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emily Blake

YELLOWKNIFE — Some sporting clubs in the Northwest Territories capital are on the sidelines as a labour dispute between the city and its unionized employees nears the end of its fourth week. 

"There's been a lot of ripple effects," said Bridget White, manager of the Yellowknife Curling Club. "It doesn't only affect our members and our staff, it really has a wider reaching effect on families and other clubs." 

With the curling centre behind the picket line, White said the club's regular activities have been disrupted, including recreational and competitive league games. It also cancelled its Rock the Rings U12, U15 and U20 bonspiel last week. 

The closure of the facility, which has a six-sheet rink with snack and bar service, has also affected four part-time bartenders and the club's ice maker, who works full time during the curling season, she said. 

The N.W.T. Curling Association announced the U18 junior girls championships scheduled to take place in Yellowknife this week have been postponed while its masters event was relocated to Hay River last month. 

Unionized workers with the city have been locked out and on strike since Feb. 8 after the parties failed to reach a deal on a new collective agreement. Wages continue to be a sticking point. 

As a result, the city's pool and arena — which are beside the curling centre — along with its library, solid waste facility, multiplex, fieldhouse, and visitor information centre have been closed to the public. 

Magnolia Unka-Wool with the Yellowknife Skating Club said as the arena is closed, figure skaters have been unable to prepare for Skate Canada assessments and simulations, which are usually held in March and April. She saw how being unable to compete affected her daughter when the arena was closed due to COVID-19.

"She was devastated," she said. 

"To think that we're going to be going through that again and skaters are going to be put back is a pretty big disappointment for them. Most of the skaters, when they get to that test-streams level, everything they do revolves around skating." 

Unka-Wool said a skater who recently competed at the Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island travelled to Mexico and Edmonton to get in ice time before the competition. Recreational skaters are also affected, she said, and the club will likely have to cancel its upcoming ice show, which it hasn't held since 2019 because of the pandemic. 

The Yellowknife Rec Hockey League and Yellowknife Women's Hockey Association have both ended their seasons early. A post on the latter group's Facebook page indicates its executive is looking into renting ice in Behchoko, an hour's drive away.  

The labour dispute has also affected clubs that use the fieldhouse, which has two indoor multi-sport fields, a climbing wall and play area, indoor track and concession.   

Soccer coach Joe Acorn said the Yellowknife Bay Soccer Club has been practising in school gyms, which are smaller than the fieldhouse, but were used before the facility opened in 2010. 

"I hope … things get back to normal soon, but if not we'll make do," he said. "We're in a better situation than some of the sports like hockey and speedskating and figure skating. They really have no other option."

Acorn said he's more concerned Super Soccer championships could be cancelled later next month if the labour dispute continues. 

The tournament, which draws players from across the N.W.T. and Nunavut, hasn't taken place the past three years due to COVID-19, he said. If this year's event is cancelled, he said some Grade 12 students will have gone through all of high school without having the chance to compete.

The Yellowknife Playgroup Association, a parent-run group that uses the fieldhouse, said it has had to make other arrangements to keep playgroup going.

"We are looking forward to the conclusion of the strike/lockout," treasurer Rosalie Tarleton wrote in an email. 

The city said in a statement it recognizes how the labour disruption has affected residents. 

"Getting an agreement that is fair, affordable and respects the important role city employees play remains the city’s priority," it reads.

The Union of Northern Workers and Public Service Alliance of Canada said in a statement that service reductions are the normal result of labour disputes and their members are also Yellowknife residents who have been affected.

"Our members are out there on picket lines in freezing temperatures asking for fair wages and to be valued and respected by the employer," it wrote. 

Late last month, the city asked the union to enter into binding arbitration, where a third-party would make a decision on the dispute. The union declined the request, saying they believe the best way reach an agreement is through negotiations. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press