A photo of fire fighting efforts posted to Wood Buffalo National Park's Facebook page on August 16, 2023.
Fort Smith leaders and residents say they are disappointed the GNWT has abandoned its “two evacuation payment” promise to the town.
But the region’s MLA, Frieda Martselos, told Cabin Radio one $750 payment is a “fair financial payment” and insisted the territorial government had never committed to two payments, despite a prior written statement from the GNWT.
“The folks from Fort Smith, and all of the evacuees, are going through a very traumatic thing, and then when the government makes a statement and then retracts it a few days later, it really just leaves kind-of a bad taste in your mouth,” said Fort Smith deputy mayor Jay Macdonald of the decision.
Fort Smith fell under an evacuation order on August 12, with residents told to head for Hay River. A day later, Hay River residents themselves were told to flee, and any Fort Smith evacuees in the town along with them. Many Fort Smith evacuees maintain those were distinct events, as any evacuee reaching Hay River before the afternoon of August 13 would have had no idea another evacuation was on the way.
On August 26, a territorial government spokesperson stated by email to Cabin Radio: “I have confirmed this morning that the payments are per event … if someone self-evacuated from Fort Smith to Yellowknife, then they would be eligible for a $400 payment. If they then self-evacuated from Yellowknife to Alberta, they would be eligible for a $750 payment.”
Four days later, the territory reversed its position, saying it had “made the decision to classify the evacuation from Fort Smith to Hay River, and then from Hay River out of the territory, as a single event.”
“We regret any confusion or misunderstanding that may have arisen,” the territory added.
Classifying Fort Smith’s two evacuations as a single event effectively eliminates a $400 payment hundreds of residents had been expecting to get.
“It’s wrong,” said Fort Smith Mayor Fred Daniels of the GNWT’s decision. “These people are depending on that, some of them don’t have any money.”
Daniels is worried some Fort Smith residents may be left stranded without the extra payment they were expecting.
The GNWT “really fell short on this one here,” he said.
Macdonald said he believes the territory is doing everything it can to bring people home safely, but that departments “need to make sure their messages are clear, and what they’re putting out there is the message they’re going to stick with.”
He says the GNWT got people’s hopes up, then did “a full reversal.”
“It takes its toll on people that are already stressed,” Macdonald said.
‘You make a commitment, you follow through’
The deputy mayor was working on wildfire logistics in Hay River when reached by phone on Thursday, but planned to head to Edmonton on his next days off to see his family and visit as many evacuation centres as he can, to see how residents are doing and how they’re taking the news.
Both Macdonald and Daniels said the town council will meet soon, with the GNWT’s evacuation payment decision a likely agenda item.
“This will be an item that will be followed up on … you make a commitment, you need to follow through,” said Macdonald. “We will definitely be pursuing it on behalf of the community.”
One resident, requesting anonymity to speak critically of both the territory and district MLA Martselos, said some community members felt frustrated by the territorial response.
The resident told Cabin Radio the town had prepared them well for the evacuation, telling residents weeks ahead of time to start packing their things and make sure their vehicles were full of gas.
But after the evacuation, the resident said, they hardly heard from their MLA on the issue.
“She has talked to us once through a short little letter, but she has not conveyed any information to what’s going on with regards to how the government’s helping out – nothing. That’s all done through public media. It’s just discouraging,” they said.
Of the backtracking on payments, the resident said: “Everybody’s pissed, to be honest with you. That’s exactly the words people are using.
“It’s coming from Yellowknife. Our MLAs, by the sounds of it, don’t have any say in the matter … there’s not an MLA out there that’s doing anything.”
They said Fort Smith residents don’t know what to do, nor if there is any way they can seek restitution.
Martselos says GNWT never promised payments
Reached by Cabin Radio, Martselos denied the territorial government had ever promised Fort Smith residents two payments for separate evacuation events.
“It’s one evacuation payment for everybody in the whole territory, no matter who you are,” she told Cabin Radio.
When told of the GNWT’s prior written statement to Cabin Radio, Martselos said: “I don’t know where you’re getting that story from – I’m very up on my own community and the government did not make that statement.”
Martselos said one payment of $500 was initially proposed, adding that during a debate with other MLAs she had advocated for $1,000 for evacuees. The final total being handed out to eligible residents who drove to Alberta is $750, while residents who drove to safety in other NWT communities can receive $400.
“There are still probably going to be other things that come in the future, but that’s for the future,” Martselos said.
The MLA told Cabin Radio it was “very wrong” for reporters to dwell on the issue of the territory’s financial commitment to Fort Smith residents.
Martselos said she had been compassionate toward constituents and had been helping people to navigate the territory’s bureaucratic systems since the evacuation began.
“I have been the 1-800 number,” she said, describing weeks spent on the phone helping residents.
“I’m not a negative person. I’m very positive about how things are going, because I know that’s what the people need right now – reassurance. They need compassion,” she said.
“They need to know that somebody cares, and they know I care.”