Previous versions of evacuation orders made no statement about offences, instead warning: “Residents who choose not to evacuate should understand they stay at their own risk.”
At a press conference, RCMP spokesperson Cpl Matt Halstead said anyone breaking an order technically faces up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine – but said in practice, “we’re not really looking to have to use that.”
Halstead also stressed that while people already in communities will be encouraged to leave, the new emphasis on the possible consequences is designed to have the most impact at roadblocks, as some evacuees try to return while orders are still in place.
“This is about public safety,” he said, “assisting in enforcing the roadblocks that are in place. In terms of the people that are here, nothing is going to change in terms of how we’re interacting with them.”
Halstead said nobody had so far been charged under the evacuation orders “and we hope we don’t have to, but that is available.”
“We will continue to apply our discretion and each case is different,” he said, noting that so far, RCMP were trying to “work with” most people other than those suspected of crimes.
“This is not a shift in our approach and these are powers that police have had access to … since the beginning.”
Halstead said there were no plans to close non-essential businesses in Yellowknife. Multiple bars, for example, are understood to remain open.
At roadblocks, ‘one is too many’
Jennifer Young, an information officer for the NWT’s emergency management organization, said the orders had always included the option of such a punishment.
She spoke after multiple communities, including Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, each made appeals in recent days for residents to either stay away, get out or both.
“You need to evacuate,” said Young. “It’s not changing anything that existed before, it’s just reinforcing that language and reinforcing the fact that there’s an enforceability behind it.”
She said the stronger language was to tell people: “Please don’t come back.”
There was no figure immediately available for the number of people who had been turned away at roadblocks to date.
“There are quite a few, not so much on the Hay River side but definitely in the Yellowknife area. We are getting consistent numbers throughout the day of people trying to get back into Yellowknife,” said Jeffrey Edison, acting assistant deputy minister for regional operations at the Department of Infrastructure.
“There are a lot of reasons why you would want to get in. Some people from other communities need food. Others want to get back in and check properties,” Edison said.
“But one is too many because you’re taking up a lot of time, and there’s a lot of risk in that.”