Cliff Kimble's trailer and addition after a fire in Enterprise destroyed his home and business. Photo: Cliff Kimble
Last Wednesday, a special meeting was called by the Hamlet of Enterprise to address the needs of the community, the majority of whom lost their homes and businesses in this summer’s devastating wildfires.
At the meeting, council approved the purchase of 10 modular homes for residents, which the mayor projected would be move-in ready by mid-November. Councillors also approved a fourth instalment of financial aid totalling $90,000 – $1,000 per resident and $250 per child.
In the days that followed, the hamlet received two letters signed by environment and communities minister Shane Thompson that said the special meeting was held illegally because council failed to give residents 48 hours’ advance notice and, therefore, the motions passed at the meeting are invalid.
Should the council choose to hold the special meeting again, the letters state, the motions to purchase housing and distribute emergency funds would be in violation of the Hamlets Act and community government funding policies that cap the hamlet’s spending on grants at $16,900 for this fiscal year.
“If council were to make this decision, it would be such a serious violation and misuse of community funding that I would be forced to put the hamlet under administration,” one letter signed by Thompson reads, suggesting a municipal administrator would be appointed in those circumstances.
$270,000 in emergency aid has already been distributed to residents by the hamlet in three bi-weekly instalments. Enterprise mayor Mike St Amour says those payments were necessary as many residents can’t work. The mayor said he had been fielding calls from residents who said they needed money for food, warmer clothes as the season changes, and school supplies for their kids.
St Amour recalled meeting with Thompson to discuss a recovery plan on September 19. When St Amour began listing the community’s needs, he was told those were not approved expenses for reimbursement.
“People are buying clothes – that lost everything – and you’re telling me it’s not approved? The room goes quiet, and then they keep on, going on about other things,” St Amour said. “I walked out of the meeting.”
What’s wrong with the hamlet’s plan?
The hamlet’s plan for getting residents back to Enterprise involved approving the purchase of modular homes for people who wanted them. Residents could stay in the homes while the hamlet prepared lots in Enterprise for their return.
When the time came for residents to move back to their lot, they would be given the option either to keep the trailer or purchase another home. For those with insurance coverage, their policy would cover the cost of the dwelling. For those without insurance, the plan was for the federal government’s Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) program to cover up to 90 percent of the cost, and for the territorial government to cover the rest.
“The DFAA program reimburses costs associated with principal residences only as long as the insurance is not available or has been denied,” reads a statement from the federal government. “The provincial or territorial governments design, develop, and deliver disaster financial assistance, deciding the amounts and types of assistance that will be provided to those that have experienced losses.”
In an interview with Cabin Radio, Minister Thompson outlined his concerns with the hamlet’s plan.
“What the mayor is proposing does not follow onto the guidelines that we’re looking into,” said Thompson. “So, we are looking at other options, and we are trying to work with the mayor on that.”
The minister expressed concern that should council purchase homes for residents and distribute financial aid, these expenses would not be reimbursed by the federal government.
“My understanding today is that’s not an eligible expense – to purchase these homes and to then rent them out,” said Thompson. “The municipality doesn’t have the ability to do that, because it’s against the legislation and regulation.”
Thompson says he is concerned that the hamlet’s spending could affect federal aid.
“It also could have an impact on DFAA,” he said, “if they look at if there’s any grants, or any stuff like that, and they deduct that from the reimbursement we get.”
The office responsible for DFAA reimbursements confirmed with Cabin Radio that eligible expenses, which include the replacement of primary dwellings, will only be processed if they are part of the provincial or territorial government’s emergency recovery plan and submitted by that government agency.
Therefore, if the purchase of mobile homes were incorporated into the territorial government’s recovery plan, they should constitute eligible expenses for reimbursement from the federal government.
“The biggest thing is that we also need to be doing it right. We need to follow the legislation that’s set out there,” said Thompson.
“Credit to the mayor and the council, they’re thinking outside the box, they’re trying to help their residents that are being impacted. Unfortunately, what they were talking about would’ve gone against the legislation that we have in place.”
Community members who spoke with Cabin Radio said they see the hamlet’s plan as the right course of action because it’s time sensitive, brings the community back together in Enterprise, and helps to establish new infrastructure in a community of 120 people that lost around 40 homes.
“My personal opinion is Maca has got mud on their face so bad, and now they’re just nitpicking at everything,” Enterprise resident Mike Kimble said about the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs’ letters.
He said he’s frustrated by a lack of support on the ground by the GNWT – frustrations exacerbated by the letters sent to the hamlet.
“The hamlet is just trying to help these people because winter is coming. These people have no place to live. They’re displaced, they’re living in hotels or with relatives,” he said.
“The people that I do talk to around here are really upset.”
Enterprise resident and fire chief Craig McMaster said: “I think what council’s doing – or trying to do, attempting to do – is right on. The people are number one. They can’t be staying in motel rooms down south.
“I think it’s appropriate to give them a choice and bring them back home, where they’re safer and comfortable.”
Cliff Kimble lost his home and business in the fires. Now, he’s staying in Hay River with family, waiting for a plan that will bring him home to Enterprise.
“Even though I lost everything, I’m probably one of the luckier ones,” he said. “I do have a place to go.”
Still, he is anxious to return to Enterprise. “Even Hay River’s too much for me, just about. I can put up with it, but I’d rather be in Enterprise, where it’s nice and quiet.”
‘Please be patient with us’
The GNWT’s recovery plan is under way, involving contact with Enterprise residents through pathfinders, who answer questions and help connect residents with resources.
Meanwhile, the GNWT has hired assessors to inspect the damage and look for signs of toxic waste in Enterprise. The territorial government plans to lead the environmental clean-up in Enterprise once that assessment is complete, according to Thompson.
The hamlet has already begun the clean-up and restoration process, hiring private companies to head the work, deal with water and sewage for the handful of liveable homes, and reconnect the town to the grid.
While the assessment and clean-up are underway, the GNWT has extended hotel stays and meals for residents in Peace River and High Level until January 15, 2024. Thompson couldn’t give an estimate for a return date because the environmental assessment is not yet complete.
Direction for next steps, whether that’s extended hotel stays or temporary camps, will come from community members, the minister said.
“Right now, we have to talk to the residents and see what their priorities are, what they’re asking for, and then we’re working from there,” he said. “We’ve already started reaching out to the impacted residents in Peace River.”
So far, Cliff Kimble says he has received two calls from Maca: first to verify that he had a place to stay, then to gauge whether he would return to Enterprise.
He said he has found communication with Maca challenging. “They hear you talking but they’re not really listening,” he said. “Because it doesn’t matter to them.”
Thompson said he hears that residents want to return home soon and, once the clean-up is complete, it will be quicker to get people back to Enterprise if they get modular homes. Thompson could not, though, confirm whether the GNWT will cover the cost of purchasing modular homes.
“If it’s eligible, then we work with the resident or the business on that,” said Thompson, regarding expenses the GNWT will cover. “But if it’s not eligible, then we have to tell people unfortunately it doesn’t fall under.”
“Please be patient with us. We’re going to work as hard and as quick as we can, but we need to do it correctly,” the minister continued. “If we can get them home quicker, we will. That’s the biggest thing, but we have a process that we need to follow.”
Some residents are concerned by the GNWT’s timeline. For those who lost their home and business, income support is an urgent need. Had the hamlet’s special meeting motions held, residents would be receiving emergency aid this Friday, September 29.
“The disaster recovery process is a lengthy one and can take several months or even years to complete,” the letters to the hamlet read. “I appreciate the difficulties faced by Enterprise, but I ask for your patience during this difficult time.”
“The government, they’re just so slow,” said Cliff Kimble. “Too much bureaucracy and it takes too much time. It’s pretty frustrating.”
“Everybody is frustrated with the government,” said Mike Kimble. “Now they’re going to say it takes months, now, to do anything. [It’s] mostly frustration and disappointment with the government.”
“I hope everything happens fast,” said Mayor St Amour. “I don’t want it to wait six months. I don’t want to wait for things to happen. We’re there, we’re ready to do things and we’re not allowed.”
The hamlet plans to seek legal counsel before responding to the letters sent by the territorial government.
“Until they pull the rug out from under me, I’m not going to give up,” said St Amour.
“I’m going to fight for the residents and the families and the children that have lost everything.”