N.W.T. MLA: review into wildfire response should consider territory’s most vulnerable

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan says she supports an independent review of wildfire response and she wants it to examine the territory’s treatment of its most vulnerable population. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

One Yellowknife MLA says an inquiry into the N.W.T. 2023 wildfire response needs to address how the territory’s most vulnerable were left in the lurch.

Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya and Range Lake MLA Kieron Testart gave notice in the legislature Tuesday that they will be calling for a public inquiry into the wildfire crisis.

Shauna Morgan, MLA for Yellowknife North, says the treatment of shelter users and seniors are an example of why that review is necessary.

“I wanted to raise this issue as a prime example of a major blind spot,” Morgan said.

She described shelter users flown from the N.W.T. to Edmonton and Calgary with limited health and wellness supports. Left on their own, Morgan said, many were evicted from hotels. She said in Calgary alone, 58 people from the N.W.T. had spent at least one night in a shelter by the end of August.

In an exchange during Tuesday’s sitting, Premier R.J Simpson said the territory is undertaking two reviews: one through the Department of Environment and Climate Change, and another through the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.

Simpson told Morgan that identifying what went wrong during the evacuation and learning from those mistakes is the very work of those reviews.

Premier R.J Simpson said that identifying what went wrong during the evacuation and learning from those mistakes is the exact work of government’s reviews. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

“The reviews are going to include feedback from NGOs [non-governmental organizations], the NGOs that were participating in the evacuation that were assisting the vulnerable populations,” Simpson said.

“So we need to know the issues that they ran into and we need to figure out how the government can better assist them going forward.”

But in an interview with CBC after Tuesday sitting, Morgan said that work would be better left to those outside the territorial government.

“I think that the trust that was broken during the evacuations requires, from the public’s point of view, independence in this inquiry for people to feel comfortable sharing fully their experiences and to be reassured that they will be sharing their experiences with a party that doesn’t have a vested interest in the system,” she said.

Morgan is a former board member for the Yellowknife Women’s Society. In October, the women’s society released an open letter describing how their clients fell through the cracks and ended up in cities with no support.

NGOs still waiting for gov’t to reach out

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay, the executive director of YWCA NWT, said no one from the government has reached out to ask for feedback for the review yet. She said she’s keen to discuss what happened last summer and how the government and NGOs can collaborate on a plan if an evacuation was to be ordered again.

“We need to have those conversations so that there’s plans in place moving forward,” she said.

Daryl Dolynny, CEO of AVENS seniors community in Yellowknife, said his organization has also not yet been invited to meet on any evacuation review.

In January, AVENS released its own report outlining its experience supporting long-term care residents during the evacuation and calling for better planning in the future.

Morgan also asked the premier what the government has done to ensure NGOs are reimbursed for paying accommodation costs, rent, food and in some cases evacuation flight costs for their clients.

Simpson said NGOs should first look to insurance.

Dolynny said AVENS spend a total of $1.4 million to support its seniors during the evacuation and that insurance doesn’t cover their costs.

“You can well imagine, being an NGO, that’s a lot of money,” he said. Dolynny said they did get a partial payment of $500,000 from the government, but he’s hopeful they can see the full amount be reimbursed.

“These are things that nonprofits were essentially doing on behalf of the government to support vulnerable people,” Morgan said. “I don’t see the connection to insurance.”

Morgan said she would follow up with Simpson to get clarify on that point but reiterated that the government should come up with a plan and timeline for reimbursement.

“These are nonprofits that obviously don’t have a lot of money in the bank,” she said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: N.W.T. wildfires evacuations may hinder 2023 overdose death count, CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

Sweden: High risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska assembles Narcan ‘rescue kits’ in hopes of preventing overdose deaths, Alaska Dispatch News

Natalie Pressman, CBC News

Natalie Pressman is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She can be reached at natalie.pressman@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @natpressman.

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