Michael McLeod at a news conference in March 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT’s Liberal MP says he is working with federal ministers and other levels of government to push for supports during the territory’s wildfire crisis.
Michael McLeod, who lives in Fort Providence, said his phone “rang non-stop” and he saw first-hand the long lineups outside his community as people evacuating by road waited for gas and other supplies.
“My role as a Member of Parliament is to take what I hear from individuals – in this case evacuees, community leaders, different levels of government – and communicate with ministers and the prime minister, and try to work through issues that are challenging people,” he said.
“Through the devolution process, the responsibility falls on the duly elected territorial government, territorial cabinet, and they have sole jurisdiction over fire management … so we’re all going to do our best to all work together and we don’t trip each other up.”
McLeod said the federal government’s efforts have included working with the Insurance Bureau of Canada to ensure claims are fast-tracked, and matching United Way NWT donations – a process he acknowledged has faced challenges, given the charity says some $900,000 in promised cash has yet to be released by Ottawa. McLeod said that was now “moving in the right direction.”
“I’ve been encouraging the federal government, Minister (Harjit) Sajjan’s people, to sit down with the GNWT,” McLeod said, referring to the emergency preparedness minister. “They want some reassurance that they’re going to be able to recoup some of their money.”
The NWT government announced funding on Friday for evacuees who drove themselves to safety by road, as well as small businesses impacted by evacuation orders. The NWT’s evacuee income disruption program also offers a one-time payment of $750 for residents who have been under an evacuation order for at least a week and whose employment has been disrupted as a result.
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty stated in a Friday afternoon post on Facebook that she had met with Dan Vandal, the minister responsible for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, to discuss the need for financial supports for local businesses.
“The city will continue to lobby and advocate for more supports, and we hope they will announce funding support soon,” she wrote.
McLeod noted NWT communities will need a lot of support as the territory experiences its worst wildfire season on record – and its biggest and most expensive evacuation in history. Some of that support will come from agencies like the Red Cross, he said, while he has also pushed for federal funding.
“I’ve been talking to almost all the people involved who are in lead positions, and we’re going to do everything possible to support the people that have been evacuated,” he said.
“I’ve conveyed my concerns to the prime minister, to all the ministers that have a role here, and we all agreed that we’re going to provide the support that’s needed.”
Cochrane calls for infrastructure supports
NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane, speaking at a Calgary evacuation centre on Friday, expressed frustration that the territory’s calls for infrastructure supports have fallen on deaf ears. She called on all Canadians to pressure the federal government to ensure northerners have access to equal services.
“We’ve been asking for the same infrastructure – roads, communications that people in Canada take for granted – for decades,” she said.
The premier pointed out many communities only have one road in and out, some of which were directly impacted by wildfires as residents were forced to flee. The only fibre link serving the South Slave region was also damaged by a wildfire, causing lengthy outages that made it difficult to communicate during the crisis.
“We had no redundancy. I couldn’t get a hold of people. I couldn’t know if they were safe, if they were evacuated or not,” Cochrane said.
“So I’m tired. I’ve been tired for a long time, asking for infrastructure. And now I’m angry. And I think that I’m not going to be able to do it alone.
“I need every single Canadian to say it is not okay that the territories live like third world countries. That we do not have the same services that people in the south have.”
On Saturday, the premier and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met to discuss the territory’s wildfire situation.
“We’ve been asking for a proper infrastructure, proper road systems, proper cell phone systems for decades,” Cochrane said in advance of that meeting.
“This wildfire has showed the risk that when we don’t get that then. I will also be emphasizing that the time for talk is done, we need action now.”
Following the meeting, the premier said Trudeau had committed to look at “accelerating the infrastructure that’s needed,” though no specifics were given.