Caroline Wawzonek addresses reporters ahead of publishing the territory's 2023-24 operating budget. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT’s finance minister says more financial supports are coming for evacuees who organized their own travel, accommodation or both.
Caroline Wawzonek’s government has faced criticism for stating earlier this week that no compensation would be available to offset the costs of people who drove themselves out of danger (many for a thousand kilometres or more) or paid for accommodation.
Those people were following the GNWT’s stated instruction at the time to drive themselves out of Yellowknife if they could, and the province of Alberta’s request – relayed by the GNWT as the evacuation began – to arrange their own accommodation if possible.
“I don’t have it right now, but we know that we’re going to need to do something,” Wawzonek told Cabin Radio on Tuesday afternoon, promising that her department was figuring out more ways to help.
She pointed to the unprecedented nature of Yellowknife being evacuated, mostly to Alberta, when ordinarily it serves as the hub for other, smaller evacuated communities.
“We’ve never had to evacuate the Northwest Territories before, let alone 65 percent of the population being now outside the Territories. So the current and existing programs that we have really don’t speak to the situation that we find ourselves in,” the minister said.
“It is apparent that people have driven their vehicles thousands of kilometres and that something is going to be needed to get them home.”
Wawzonek said her department is “running options” like providing free gas to get people home when evacuations end, but she stressed that was just one example and was not yet confirmed.
“I want to be cautious to give the folks who are right now running some options and coming up with a policy as much leeway as I can, so people don’t turn around and say, ‘Oh, gosh, the minister just said we’re doing it like this.’ I want them to have the leeway to run the numbers, to look at who has travelled, where they’ve travelled, and figure something out,” the minister said.
Asked if, beyond supports for the journey back, the NWT government will give people help as they remain away from home – possibly for weeks to come, depending on the wildfire threat – Wawzonek said she acknowledged the “cohort of folks who have not ended up in an evacuation registration centre.”
She said the initial wording that encouraged people to make their own arrangements, particularly for accommodation, should have been more “nuanced.”
“If you can stay with friends, that would be ideal. If you can stay with family, that would be ideal. That is a no-cost solution. The idea of paying your own way in a hotel? That is clearly not a solution,” she said, urging anyone in that situation to get to an evacuation centre and acquire free accommodation and meals.
“There are some people paying out of pocket, thinking they were doing the right thing, and we’re going to need to figure out what kind of a fair or equitable program might work for them,” she said.
This interview was recorded on August 22, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: After last night’s press conference, the CBC ran a report titled “NWT says no financial aid for evacuees who organized own travel, accommodations.” It is fair to say a lot of people who did organize their own travel and their own accommodation are shocked by that, because that’s what the GNWT asked them to do as a preference. Can you confirm there is no financial aid if you drove out and got your own shelter as requested?
Caroline Wawzonek: Right now, we don’t have a program for this. And I know that sounds like I’m splitting hairs. I’m not. We’ve never had to evacuate the Northwest Territories before, let alone 65 percent of the population being now outside the Territories. So the current and existing programs that we have really don’t speak to the situation that we find ourselves in.
Back when Hay River was evacuated for the second time in two years – and they’re now at the third – the need became apparent that we needed to do something differently for folks who weren’t public servants getting paid, weren’t covered by employers. And that’s when we came up with the Employment Income Disruption program that happened in the middle of that evacuation, because it became apparent that we needed to do something more.
We’re in a similar situation right now. It is apparent that people have driven their vehicles thousands of kilometres and that something is going to be needed to get them home. I just don’t have the program. So I think the nuance is: I don’t have it right now, but we know that we’re going to need to do something.
The message I’m hearing back from you is: Yes, there is going to be financial aid once we figure out how the heck we’re going to do that.
Maybe we ensure there’s free gas along the route, right? But I just want to be cautious to give the folks who are right now running some options, and coming up with a policy, as much leeway as I can, so that they don’t turn around and say, ‘Oh, gosh, the minister just said we’re doing it like this.’
I want them to have the leeway to do it now, to run the numbers, to look at who has travelled, where they’ve travelled, and figure something out.
All of your examples are: “Here’s what we might do on the way back.” But for all we know, that could be weeks away right now. There will be people who don’t have particularly high-paying jobs who are currently paying out of pocket for all of their food, and paying for everything else, and wondering: “I don’t think I’m going to be able to last for weeks.” What’s your advice to them? Is something coming?
I do realize there’s the issue of people getting home who paid for their own way out, but then yes, there’s a cohort of folks who have not ended up in an evacuation registration centre.
Well, because the GNWT asked them not to, if possible.
If you can make your own arrangements, sure. And I think, looking back now, maybe that communication should be nuanced. Like, if you can stay with friends, that would be ideal. If you can stay with family, that would be ideal. That is a no-cost solution. The idea of paying your own way in a hotel? That is clearly not a solution. Even people with a “high-paying job,” I mean, people have all sorts of financial situations, that’s a lot to ask.
If you have people in your circle who can help give you a place to stay, that’s a lot to ask, but it certainly is first prize for all concerned. If you are in a situation where you are not able to do that, then the next prize is please go to an evacuation registration centre and utilize one of the free accommodation options that’s available. I’ve heard stories that people are being told they have only so many days or are going to be kicked out. They will be accommodated through the Alberta system, at a shelter, for the duration of the order period. I realize sometimes we have to fiddle, you know, work that out room to room, but they will be accommodated and they are supposed to be getting meals. I realize they are basic meals and it’s not anyone’s preference, but that’s your first choice if you can’t run these numbers on your own: get to the centre. You’ll get your shelter, you’ll get your food.
There are people, I do realize, for example, who stayed in Fort Providence at the Snowshoe Inn. That’s not technically a centre. That is not a scenario that I currently had run, that is not a scenario that we had accounted for, because again, typically, the evacuations that we have rather tragically had over the last couple of years? Folks have come into Yellowknife. It’s been a little more coordinated and organized. This has gone off a little bit differently. So there are going to be some of these things.
We were already working the fuel issue of “how are folks going to get home who’ve incurred hundreds of dollars on fuel costs?” The nuance to this problem that I think’s come up from last night is that there are some people paying out of pocket, thinking they were doing the right thing, and we’re going to need to figure out what kind of a fair or equitable program might work for them.
When Alberta has done this in the past it has a website, evacuationpayment.alberta.ca. It’s right in front of me here: $1,250 for each adult aged 18 or older when the evacuation order is given, $500 for each dependent child. I know we’re not Alberta. I know we don’t have their money. Could it be something like this?
We were asked that back, again, in that first evacuation we had this spring. That was exactly the question and the response at that time was: We’re not in that financial position. We are offering very different supports in a lot of ways to what Alberta does, and to what other jurisdictions do.
Now, would we offer that to absolutely every resident who’s been evacuated, so many of whom are at those registration centres, when the registration centres are available for food and shelter? Probably that’s not likely going to happen. Are we going to have to do something to assist those folks who may have, certainly in these first few days, made their own arrangements thinking that that was the right pathway forward? It’s that cohort that I do recognize we may have to be looking at and considering something here.
That cohort are probably watching the clock when we talk about this. What’s the timeline?
With respect to the gas issue, that’s the first one we’ve been working on. The Department of Finance is already running some options and the process is a decision options paper gets put together, it comes to the Financial Management Board, Financial Management Board approves. The income disruption program went in a matter of days, we were able to get something together. So it can come together in a matter of days.
But there are a couple of different issues here, right? There are gas issues, which was the first thing that hit my desk, and now there’s the recognition that there are others. In terms of the clock ticking, for anyone that can, get themselves to the evacuation centres that are all over Alberta. You don’t need to go to Edmonton. You don’t need to go to Calgary. I mean, I’ve heard actually, anecdotally, the small communities are are actually kind-of nice. They’re not as full, they’re not as busy. Get to one of those locations. You will have your shelter and your food covered.
I know there’s going to be five, six days here where people are going to need some supports, perhaps, because they’ve dug into savings. But going forward, someone that doesn’t have a place to stay and is running low on funds? Please get to those evacuation centres.
There’s the $750 payment as well. Is that enough for people displaced for weeks?
People who are on income assistance are getting the emergency provision assistance that’s under income assistance: $1,000 for an adult and $500 for minor, I believe. If you’re getting benefits like gifts or whatnot, there’s not gonna be a clawback – that was something I had heard questioned.
The income disruption amount, the $750 per person? When we looked at that was when Hay River was approaching their second week of what was, if I recall, roughly a two-week evacuation period. I’m sure many people will say it is not enough but shelter is covered, food is covered, and we’re looking at a way to make sure everyone can get home safely. So these are not Cadillac services.
We do have now 65 percent of our population under an evacuation order and monster wildfires. The evacuation expenses can eventually, hopefully find their way for some refunding through the Canada Disaster Assistance program. But the cost of fighting these fires does not. That is borne by the GNWT, so we are going to have to somehow make it all work.
On that note, what dollar value has the federal government so far committed to your government in assistance for this?
At this point, we’ve not been given any promises of any direct financial assistance. Again, I want to be cautious in saying that. We do have a major presence of the military on the ground and they were there very quickly and have been incredible. The disaster assistance program is a federal program and does have parameters by which provinces and territories are refunded costs of evacuation. So although there’s not something special coming to us right now, there is a program that exists to help support us.
That money doesn’t necessarily come in this fiscal year, or even next or maybe the next, which means we have to cash-fund it, which means we may be taking on the debt. We may be running the interest. And we have a significant firefighting bill. So I just don’t want to kind-of bite that hand too much right now – and if I might spin back to the first question, part of what we want to do when we’re designing evacuee supports is to try and do our best that we balance programs that are going to work for the people that need them against programs that will allow us to get some refunding through the federal government program.
Is there anything for people who are self-employed, small business owners who sometimes fall through cracks between other programs? I could look at the tourism sector as well. There’s almost this feeling that we’re entering another Covid-esque, “We’re gonna need something here to get through parts of this, depending on how long it goes on.” Is there any sense of that from your side?
Let me start first with the income disruption program. It is flexible. We have to have policies that have wording on the webpage, but it is meant to be flexible. If your income of any kind is disrupted, please go apply. If you’re self-employed, if you’re a business owner and your income is disrupted, you really should be applying – and don’t get bogged down in the details there. Please apply and will someone will be calling you from Finance who’ll work on it.
Bigger picture though? Business supports, financial supports – this is an area where there are SEED programs with the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, which has in the past provided some supports to affected businesses. It has never been on the size or scale that we’re looking at right now. That’s all I can say at this point.
However, you know, I’ll look back to the Covid experience. As much as I’d never like to relive that, one thing that we did have: CanNor and ITI partnered up pretty quickly and were able to find ways to develop some supports and pump a fair bit of money out into the business community. If you’re going to ask me, am I doing that right next? I don’t have an answer right now. But I do know that the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment is actioning it. I think they’re actually preparing to be available this evening to speak to some of what we’re doing, so they are tasked with it. They’re on it.
There are lots of people with individual situations, specific concerns, situations that are unique to them. A lot of those are ending up in our inbox right now. Is there somewhere they can take those concerns where the territorial government can help?
A lot of them are ending up in the inboxes of MLAs. That is a helpful place in that MLAs know kind-of immediately where to send them. I’m hesitant to have my colleagues’ inboxes flooded but at the same time, that – without thinking through what my options are – that is one place that if they’re ending up with the MLAs and the MLAs are sending them on to a minister, or for those of us who have that dual role, they’re ending up with us in a dual role.
So I have a lot of that coming in to me as well, and I get the people are stressed. I don’t mind that they reach out and I get that they’ll be angry and we can only improve if we know where the problems are.
Note: After this interview concluded, a member of cabinet communications said evacuees can call 811 in the territory and 1-844-259-1793 out of territory for information.