The sky turned orange in Hay River due to the nearby wildfire in an undated photo. Stacey Barnes/Town of Hay River
The Northwest Territories government now has a budget of around $100 million dedicated to 2023 wildfire suppression as it deals with the ongoing crisis.
During a sitting hosted in Inuvik on Monday, MLAs unanimously passed a bill allocating an additional $75 million to the Department of Environment and Climate Change’s wildfire suppression budget for the financial year.
That budget originally contained around $21.8 million.
“I recognize that this request is substantial and it will have an impact on the GNWT’s forecasted operating surplus,” finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said.
“The Department of Finance is taking steps to ensure that the government remains in compliance with the fiscal responsibility policy, as well as how best to mitigate the financial impacts of the wildfire season.”
The fiscal responsibility policy sets limits on how some government financial operations are handled, so public debt is “maintained at fiscally sustainable levels to ensure the delivery of programs and services is not compromised,” according to the policy itself.
The minister said based on current estimates, the new budget should be enough to address this year’s wildfire season – but further funding may be needed.
“Nothing about this year has been typical so far,” Wawzonek said.
She promised MLAs a detailed breakdown of how the money is being spent, which includes air tankers, firefighting and evacuation costs. She added the territory plans to recover some costs from the federal government, but current disaster financial assistance agreements do not include firefighting.
While all MLAs approved the new budget, some raised concerns about the impact it could have on the territory’s ability to continue offering services without further burdening residents.
“This is going to leave us in a huge hole,” Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said.
Wawzonek responded that she was “alive” to the need to balance wildfire suppression costs, financial supports for evacuees, the cost of providing services, the already high cost of living in the North, and the territory’s growing debt.
“This is a complicated, and difficult, and unhappy topic,” she said.
“These are conversations that have been keeping a lot of people up at night.”
Wawzonek added the NWT government has “all but wiped out” its surplus and is facing a “litany of problems,” including not just wildfires but also low water levels affecting the power corporation and barges.
Many MLAs raised concern that the extra funding request did not include more financial supports for evacuees, saying their constituents are struggling and the funding being offered is inadequate.
The territory has said it will provide $750 per vehicle for residents who evacuated by road outside the territory, and $400 to those who drove elsewhere in the NWT. Applications for that program are set to open on Tuesday.
The GNWT also has a program that provides a one-time payment of $750 for residents who have been under an evacuation order for more than seven days and their employment has been disrupted as a result.
“A lot of people have just started to recover post-Covid,” said Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake.
“We need to step up as a government to help our people out,” added Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon.
Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson agreed, noting people from Hay River have had to evacuate three times in the past two years and are “financially exhausted.”
He said adult evacuees should be provided no less than $3,000 and youth $1,500, and called on the NWT government to pressure the federal government for support.
O’Reilly said he’d like to see funding expanded to people who paid for their own commercial flights, while Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, said $400 is not enough for people who evacuated elsewhere in the North.
Premier Caroline Cochrane, who met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week, said he had committed to look into fast-tracking employment insurance and disaster assistance funding for the territory.
Cochrane said he gave no firm commitment, however, on financial supports for NWT evacuees, citing the need to be fair to all jurisdictions. She said he did commit to reviewing the disaster assistance program.