Yellowknife's City Hall. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The City of Yellowknife is planning to hire an independent consultant to review its response to wildfires this summer with the aim of being better prepared for future emergencies. For many councillors, public trust is of paramount concern.
City councillors were supportive of having an external review, known as an after action assessment, and debated the proposed details during an hours long meeting on Monday.
“I know we’re all – myself, council, staff and the public – looking forward to this review, the good, the bad and the ugly, because it’s important that we learn from this experience and work to improve in the future,” Mayor Rebcca Alty said.
“We embarked on a historical event,” councillor Stacie Arden-Smith said of this summer’s city-wide evacuation. “You have to learn from somewhere and this was our baseline. We are learning and from here we can only get better in what we’re going to be providing for our community … we will have a better sense of preparedness for these things.”
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said whoever is hired to complete the assessment will be tasked with creating a final report, a work plan with priorities, and a presentation of findings and recommendations to council. She said the city could also require interim reporting, an option supported by several councillors.
Many councillors on Monday raised the importance of public trust and transparency in the review process and the city’s response to future emergencies.
“For some residents, this will be continuing, and for others this will be rebuilding public trust. And that all starts today,” Ben Hendriksen said.
“The public has repeatedly very clearly stated that they want more information,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how much I want to see something, some more detailed planning. People fled the city because they didn’t feel safe.”
“If the public says it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”
Tom McLennan also said he’d like to see more detailed planning made public with factors that are under the municipality’s control.
“I think that is what the public was crying for leading up to this,” he said.
Several councillors questioned the role that public engagement will play in the review, as it was not outlined in documents presented on Monday.
“I would presume to see a very fulsome public engagement component in the terms of reference that includes various platforms and various opportunities,” Ryan Fequet said, adding he supported having multiple roundtable forums.
Cat McGurk, who remained in the city during the evacuation to help with wildfire defences, said it’s important that different groups involved in the emergency response be included in the assessment.
Bassi-Kellett said stakeholders will be included in the review.
The city is looking at public engagement, she said, but there are likely areas of assessment that won’t be of interest to many residents, such as the legislative framework around emergency response. She said the city will have to work with the territorial government, which also has responsibilities when it comes to emergency response and evacuations. The city expects the NWT government will complete its own territory-wide review of the response to the 2023 wildfire season.
“Residents rightly probably don’t care,” Bassi-Kellett said of the division of responsibilities between the levels of government. “They just want to make their points and they want to make sure that there’s recognition of what worked and what didn’t work.”
City staff are expected to make changes to the proposed after action assessment before councillors reexamine the plan at their next meeting on October 10.
The city has not budgeted for the review and is looking to see if it is eligible for disaster funding from the territorial or federal governments. Bassi-Kellett said it is expected to cost around $100,000 to $150,000.