Katrina Nokleby is pictured attending a conference in Yellowknife in 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Police in Yellowknife say they are investigating the circumstances of MLA Katrina Nokleby’s return to the evacuated city this week.
Nokleby was criticized by Mayor Rebecca Alty on Friday after the Great Slave MLA said she had used the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to secure passage back into the city.
She said she had been able to pass a roadblock outside the city – a checkpoint barring all but essential workers from returning – after agreeing to serve as a geological engineering advisor to incoming Dettah Chief Ernest Betsina.
She subsequently told NNSL she didn’t “feel a huge sense of urgency” in the city.
“I’ve seen people playing frisbee. It doesn’t strike me that the town is about to burn down by any means,” NNSL quoted her as saying.
In a Friday evening news conference after that article was published online, Nokleby’s remarks drew a strong response from Alty.
“For me, that comment is incredibly disrespectful to all the crews that have been busting their ass 12 to 18 hours a day to protect our community,” Alty said, directly raising the MLA’s comments in an opening statement.
“For the past month, firefighters have been out there risking their lives to fight the fire. And for the past two weeks, parents have missed their kids’ birthdays so they can create the best fire breaks in Canada. Military personnel have been providing on-the-ground support to the firefighting and evacuation of our communities, and all the staff at the city and elsewhere have been working exhaustively to plan the defence and the future reopening of our community.”
The mayor added: “I do hope there will be an apology to all of these people,” calling Nokleby’s remark “an isolated comment.”
Nokleby, reached on Friday evening and asked if she intended to apologize, wrote: “I just say what I see, and what everyone else is telling me.”
On Saturday morning, an RCMP spokesperson told Cabin Radio: “I confirm that the RCMP have received a complaint about this and that an investigation has been opened.”
Evacuation orders are enforceable by law. Breaking the current orders carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail or up to a $5,000 fine.
RCMP have repeatedly stated they are reluctant to use those powers to enforce the orders, but would do so where considered necessary.
Nokleby told Cabin Radio she “came in on Betsina’s list legally.” Asked why the Yellowknives Dene First Nation had subsequently issued a statement denying any contact with Nokleby about her return to Yellowknife, she wrote: “If they choose to say otherwise now, all I can say is look at who works at YKDFN.”
Asked to elaborate, she responded: “I followed the instructions I was given by Maca to be on a list of an approved agency,” referring to the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs. “The chief added me to his list for Ndılǫ and I came through the checkpoint legally on Wednesday, and the chief and I discussed that I was essential to his team. And that is now where I am at.”
Nokleby said she had previously been in Behchokǫ̀ but wanted to return to Yellowknife because she was worried about depleting Behchokǫ̀’s food and supplies, as the community struggles with a supply chain breakdown related to the territorial capital’s evacuation.
Asked why she did not drive south to an evacuation centre as residents were instructed, she wrote: “The road was closed, I have four cats with me.”
Though the highway to Alberta has experienced closures between Kakisa and Enterprise, the highway from Yellowknife to the Dehcho and BC – and then across to Alberta, if need be – has been open throughout the week.
“Yes, but I also have a skill set that is greater than many here volunteering, and I’m aware that no one of leadership is here,” Nokleby said in response to that assertion. (She appeared to be referring to territorial government. Other levels of government do have leaders in the city.)
“I felt my skills were best used here than becoming a greater burden on Alberta.”
Noting that she was the only MLA in Yellowknife to her knowledge, Nokleby said she was only receiving “heavily sanitized info” and wanted to see the situation for herself.
Asked if that situation differed in any significant form from the situation as reported by Cabin Radio and other news organizations, she responded: “No comment.”
The MLA denied that some remarks she made to NNSL could be construed as encouraging residents to break the evacuation order and return early. In particular, the newspaper quoted her as telling people: “Jump through the Maca hoops. Write the minister of Maca. Write the emergency management organization and ask how do I get deemed essential. That’s what I did.”
Queried on that statement, Nokleby wrote: “My message to people is that I care about them, I’m trying to help, I’m ascertaining for myself what is going on so I can better serve my constituents. People are adults and make their own decisions.”
But the Premier of the Northwest Territories, Caroline Cochrane, appeared to interpret Nokleby’s remarks differently.
“Please, do not try to ‘jump through hoops’ to get back into the Northwest Territories,” Cochrane told residents at Friday’s news conference, without mentioning Nokleby by name. “You put yourself and our first responders at risk.”
“We appreciate that everybody wants to come home,” Alty said. “But we have all of the professionals and experts that we need right now. And we’re not looking for anybody further.”