Jane Weyallon-Armstrong at the NWT legislature in March 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The MLA for Monfwi says hardship for Tłı̨chǫ wildfire evacuees this month could have been avoided had the territory consulted the Tłı̨chǫ Government.
“We’re second class. All this was happening on our land and we were not consulted,” Jane Weyallon Armstrong said during an emergency sitting of the legislature in Inuvik on Monday.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government says hundreds of its citizens were among evacuees from Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndılǫ. An evacuation order for the area was issued on August 16 in the face of a wildfire closing from the west.
Other communities, including Hay River, Fort Smith, the Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Enterprise, are also under an evacuation order.
“That evacuation put our life at risk, and there are still 28 communities that we have to consider,” said Weyallon Armstrong, referring to the NWT communities not currently displaced.
The MLA said Indigenous people, including Elders and those facing homelessness and addictions, were uprooted to large cities in the south. She said that meant some people did not have supports in their language, were put in unsafe situations, or family members were unaware of their whereabouts.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government was not given the opportunity to provide supports or have its citizens evacuate to other communities in the NWT, Weyallon Armstrong said, and had to create its own registration and support centre in the south to find and help them.
“This could and should have been avoided with proper planning and coordination with Indigenous governments and organizations,” she said.
Weyallon Armstrong said wildfire experts had not consulted with Indigenous Elders and knowledge-keepers.
To address these concerns, she moved a motion on Monday to amend the territory’s Emergency Management Act, requiring the emergency management organization to coordinate with Indigenous governments and organizations.
The move was supported by the Tłı̨chǫ Government, which said in a statement that it estimated 1,000 Tłı̨chǫ citizens to be among the current evacuees.
“I deeply appreciate all the efforts being taken in these trying times, yet we can always do better,” Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty was quoted as saying.
“We have the best knowledge and capacity to support the needs of our people and we would like the GNWT to collaborate with us to ensure our citizens are taken care of. This amendment would allow us to work together on urgent issues in the day-to-day emergency response.”
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, who seconded the motion, said she had received numerous messages from residents sharing concerns, adding people in Behchokǫ̀ are struggling to access food as the supply chain has been disrupted.
“Put the power in the Indigenous peoples’ hands. Give them the power to bring their people home now,” she said.
While many MLAs agreed with the spirit of Weyallon Armstrong’s motion, they said they were not convinced it was the best way, or the right time, to address needed improvements to emergency management.
“I’m just not convinced that this bill solves all the problems we want to be solved, and in fact it may cause further problems in all-of-a-sudden changing what is the structure of an emergency management organization that has been stood up,” said Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North.
He said changing the legislation warrants a more thorough review.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, and Shane Thompson, minister of environment and municipal affairs, also took issue with amending legislation without review and during an ongoing crisis.
“We’ve got too much work ahead of us,” Simpson said. “We’re in the fight to save our community, and other communities are in the same boat as well. And that’s where our focus has to be.”
While Weyallon Armstrong’s motion passed a second reading, it did not receive unanimous consent to be read a third time. It has been referred to a committee of regular MLAs, the standing committee on government operations, for further review.