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Chief denies suggestion KFN hasn’t applied for disaster funding

KFN Chief April Martel speaks at the Dehcho Annual Assembly in June 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
April Martel speaks at the Dehcho Annual Assembly in June 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

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Kátł’odeeche First Nation leaders say they have been left confused by suggestions they have yet to apply for disaster assistance funding after a wildfire hit.

A report published by CKLB last week quoted information provided by Indigenous Services Canada that implied the community’s administrators had yet to apply for federal disaster relief funding.

On Friday, Chief April Martel told Cabin Radio the First Nation has already requested and received $100,000 from the federal government to cover costs associated with May’s wildfire.

Martel said much of that money had been spent restoring essential services, offering reimbursements, replacing appliances and furniture, and paying bills.

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“We ordered fridges and freezers for all our people,” said Martel. “We’re giving them $1,000 for the food they lost in their fridges, we’re paying their power bills, reimbursed them for accommodations, gas.”

All of those initiatives are covered by Indigenous Services Canada funding, Martel told Cabin Radio. “We just send them the bills.”

On Monday, a representative of Indigenous Services Canada confirmed that KFN leadership requested $100,000 to cover initial expenses in May and that money was delivered on June 1.

The community is entitled to advance payments of up to $500,000 under the Emergency Management Assistance Program (known as Emap), but is also able to submit invoices and receipts for emergency-related items as needed.

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“ISC’s Emap reimburses First Nations for 100 percent of eligible response and recovery costs associated with evacuations, including transportation, accommodations and meals,” the ISC representative wrote in an email.

“Should additional needs arise, we will continue to be there to pay for 100 percent of eligible expenses related to the evacuation. We thank the community and its leadership for their hard work and collaboration.”

Reimbursement versus advance

The difference between applying for a reimbursement and applying for an advance appears to be central to the confusion.

Ian Down, the journalist responsible for the CKLB report, told Cabin Radio that on two separate occasions, Indigenous Services Canada asserted the First Nation had not submitted a claim under Emap.

“The K’atl’odeeche First Nation has not submitted a claim for reimbursement of Emergency Management Assistance Program eligible costs for responding to the 2023 wildfire emergency,” a representative of the federal department wrote to CKLB on June 12.

“You may wish to contact the First Nation for more information on their submission.”

After the CKLB story was published, a spokesperson reached out to the broadcaster to clarify that though the First Nation had not submitted an application for costs to be reimbursed, it had received an advance, said Down.

“We have since updated the story to reflect the new information from ISC,” he said.

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Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately comment on its earlier statement to CKLB or the confusion over whether the First Nation had applied for funding.

A burned-out fridge and vehicle are visible on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation reserve. Photo submitted by April Martel

Martel said further applications for funding may be necessary but, given the First Nation’s office burned to the ground and staff moved into a functional replacement building a little over a week ago, that may take time.

While some of the First Nation’s documents and critical information were stored safely online, certain documents were lost when the band office was destroyed, which has presented challenges.

But she emphasized that all of the relief funding received by members, as well as many emergency measures, were covered by federal funding. As a reserve, KFN was able to hire the NWT government in its efforts to fight the wildfire.

“All the equipment, all the helicopters, all the emergency stuff, ECC and Maca were contracted to take care of that stuff,” she said, referring to two GNWT departments. “Everything we do as a Nation is covered.”

The First Nation’s chief executive officer, Alex Gresl, said the community has received support from both the federal and territorial government in response to the disaster. It’s a process that has become all too familiar for KFN’s leadership after flooding in 2022.

“We were almost done with our flood repairs, and then had to jump straight into fire,” said Gresl.

“It’s almost a mirror image of last year, working hand-in-hand with government and taking a collective approach to make sure community needs are being met and that everyone’s taken care of.”

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Frustration with media

The First Nation’s leaders said they felt reporting about the funding submissions focused on the wrong issue.

Gresl said the focus should be on members’ resilience rather than what he described as “semantics relative to where our funding is coming from.”

“It gets disheartening,” he said. “We have our hands full as it is just trying to get through the recovery process.”

Throughout the ordeal, Gresl felt some coverage of the KFN disaster lacked compassion. For one, he said, staff were being hounded by reporters amid a stressful, emotional and complex organizational undertaking.

“I’m always sorry when we can’t help [reporters] meet deadlines but, as you can appreciate, we had other priorities we needed to focus on,” he said.

There were also incidents that felt intrusive.

“We’ve had reporters that tried to take pictures inside the community when it was in the midst of that devastation, before our own members had even gotten a chance to see the state of their own residences,” Gresl said.

Eighteen families lost homes to the wildfire. Significant local gathering-places – such as the Yamózha Kúé Society building, also known as the Dene Cultural Institute – were also destroyed.

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“These were homes that had ties to generations, gone in the blink of an eye,” said Gresl. “It’s incredibly devastating to this community. We can appreciate that the outside world wants to know what’s going on, but members deserve to receive that information in a more compassionate way.”

Both Martel and Gresl said that the support they received from Hay River, Fort Providence, Yellowknife, Enterprise and other NWT communities in the wake of the disaster has been significant and is deeply appreciated. On Friday, the Yellowknife True North Rotary Club announced it is holding a furniture drive for KFN members.

“People have really gone above and beyond the call of duty. It’s been absolutely amazing,” said Gresl.

Over the next few months, the community will continue to focus on healing and reconstruction.

“It’s been an unbelievably challenging endeavour,” Gresl said, “but through the consistency and the approach of chief and council, they’ve been really wonderful at steering the ship and getting the right steps in place for recovery.”