Athletes from Team Yukon wave their flags. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)

Athletes from Team Yukon wave their flags. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)

City of Whitehorse deliberates on hosting 2026 Arctic Winter Games

Whitehorse was set to host the games in 2020 before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic

The City of Whitehorse has received an administrative report for an opportunity to host the 2026 Arctic Winter Games (AWG). The report was presented during the standing committees meeting on July 4.

Krista Mroz, the city’s director of community services, presented a report to city council for an opportunity to host the games in Whitehorse.

According to Mroz’s report, the 2026 Games were planned to be hosted in Yamal, Russia. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Arctic Winter Games International Committee (AWGIC), which heads the hosting of the competition, suspended Yamal’s participation, resulting in the absence of a host.

The usual rotation of hosts has the Northwest Territories ready to put on the Games for 2028. The report states N.W.T. was offered a chance to host two years earlier but opted to stay on schedule leaving the gap for another host to step in.

“The Games is a high-profile circumpolar youth sport competition for northern and Arctic athletes that provides an opportunity to strengthen sport development, promote the benefits of sport, build partnerships, and highlight culture and values of northern regions around the world,” Mroz said during her presentation.

The Yukon was set to co-host the games in 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

In June, the Yukon government received a letter from the AWGIC with an invitation to consider the possibility of hosting the games in 2026.

A response to the AWGIC indicating an intent to host is required by July 31.

Mroz said although the city hasn’t been formally asked to host the Games, the community has significant experience holding multi-sport events, having hosted the 2007 Canada Winter Games and the 2012 AWG, and preparing to co-host the 2020 AWG before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The Games is viewed as an important opportunity for the approximately 3,000 young athletes, coaches [and] officials, and is key to sport development in the Yukon and circumpolar north, and can generate significant economic impact,” she said, adding that the 2020 AWG was expected to contribute approximately $5.7 million to Yukon’s economy, and that number is expected to increase for 2026.

“If the city agrees to host the Games, they would enter into negotiations to sign a contract with the AWGIC, and begin the process of forming a host society to deliver the Games,” she said.

She explained that the role of the host society is to stage the Games, and includes taking responsibilities such as developing a budget, securing sponsorships, coordinating logistics and transportation, and selecting sports and cultural events.

In addition, the host society would comprise a board of directors, salaried employees and the many volunteers that help deliver the Games. She added that the role of the society’s board of directors is to approve major decisions in accordance with AWGIC policies and standards, and this board would consist of representatives from the city, community and Yukon government.

Mroz said the city has two alternatives: first, to advise the territorial government that Whitehorse is prepared to host the 2026 AWG, subject to confirmation of Yukon government commitments, and authorize the administration to enter into contract negotiations with the AWGIC; or secondly, to advise the Yukon government that the city is not willing to consider hosting the 2026 AWG.

On funding for the games, should the city decide to host, Mroz said host societies normally receive grants from the federal government through Heritage Canada and Sport Canada, together with territorial governments and host municipalities, which may include in-kind donations.

In recent years, she said, the cost of hosting the Games has ranged from $7 million to more than $13 million. Using information from the 2020 AWG budget and audited financial statements, it is estimated that the 2026 Games could cost approximately $9.55 million, reflecting a 22 per cent increase over budgeted costs for 2020.

This estimate includes a cash contribution of $250,000 from the city, in addition to a $500,000 contribution of in-kind support from the city for use of facilities and staff time. The city’s cash contribution is consistent with previous years, and would come forward for approval under the budget process.

Mroz said $9.55 million represents an early estimate and the amount indicated could change depending on funding amounts provided by both federal and territorial governments and any additional revenue in market changes. A final budget would be developed by the host society once formed. Mroz said city administration would be expecting $4 million in funding as well in-kind support for the host society from the territorial government if it is to move forward with the bid.

The Yukon government would also have to commit to underwrite any deficit incurred by the host society in order for the city to agree to host the Games.

These commitments would need to be confirmed by July 28, prior to the AWGIC deadline at the end of July.

Mroz concludes her report by saying that the administrative recommendation is that the council advise the Yukon government that the city is prepared to host the 2026 AWG subject to the receipt of Yukon government financial and other commitments by July 28 and that council authorizes the administration to enter into negotiations with the AWGIC.

Mayor Laura Cabott said she was pleased with the report and the work the administration has done in reaching out to all levels of government.

“Clearly, this will be an all-government effort in order to be able to pull this off. But the other piece I’m curious about is the community support. So, I’m wondering if you are able to provide any information on community support — if the sports and business community are interested in us hosting,” she said.

Mroz responded that they have done some outreach to the sports community to determine whether or not there is interest and are optimistic based on the conversations with some of the sports groups.

“We have heard but don’t have confirmation from the business community that there is interest in hosting. So, some of those commitments will be firmed up in time for next week’s council meeting,” she said.

Coun. Michelle Friesen said in light of other issues in the community such as the housing crisis and health emergencies, what would be the other benefits of investing in the games.

Mroz said some of the benefits in hosting the games include promoting social interaction within a community that helps to strengthen cultural awareness and understanding, build sports opportunities, create additional opportunities for youths to be engaged in sports and to witness those high-level athletes and have aspirations which build self-confidence.

“But also brings together the community in a way that increases community pride, builds self-esteem and helps in volunteerism,” she said.

Friesen asked what the penalty would be if they move past the July 31 deadline or if they pull back from hosting the games.

The committee said there won’t be a penalty should that be the case. But it would be leaving the AWGIC at a very difficult position of having to scramble to find an alternate host and probably cause some reputational harm for the city.

Coun. Ted Laking said if the city is to move forward with the report, they would need some assurances that the $4-million commitment from the Yukon government will be new money and not taken from other priorities such as improvements in infrastructure and service delivery in the territory.

“I wouldn’t want the Games to come at the cost of these other necessary events. So, is there a way we can work that into the recommendation coming out of the committee; that we make it clear that as part of the financial commitments we receive from the Yukon government, that this will be new money and will not be taken from existing pots,” he said.

Cabott, Friesen and Coun. Mellisa Murray supported Laking’s submissions.

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