Returning evacuees arrive at Yellowknife Airport on September 10, 2023. Photo: Trung Bui
Evacuees who purchased flights out of danger – or who bought flights home when the territorial government failed to provide one – won’t be reimbursed, the minister responsible reiterated on Thursday.
Some Yellowknife residents bought commercial flights out of the city between August 16 and August 18 after its evacuation was declared.
In interviews, some have said they did so to avoid the kilometre-long line that developed on Thursday for GNWT-provided free flights to safety. People needing those flights reported waiting in line for half a day with nowhere to sit. Some were sent home with no flight as night fell.
By Friday, there was no line and anyone who turned up could get a flight. However, some residents – with no guarantee that Friday would be any better than Thursday – were understood to have bought flights and left the territorial capital by that point. Others did so earlier to avoid the prospect of a painful, hours-long wait for themselves or family members with disabilities or illnesses.
On the return to Yellowknife in September, many people reported receiving little or no information from the GNWT after signing up for re-entry flights. Some of those people also turned to commercial flights for transportation home.
“People didn’t pay for flights because they could afford it. On the heels of watching Hay River drive through literal flames to get to safety, and while expecting the fires to reach Yellowknife by the weekend, they paid for flights out of fear they couldn’t afford not to,” Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland said in the legislature on Thursday, characterizing the reasons some residents chose commercial travel.
“This government also provided re-entry flights. Some residents are still waiting to hear what flight they’re on,” she quipped.
“They watched as multiple flights left half-empty while they were desperate to get on, but they couldn’t afford to wait. They had businesses to open, employers needed them, and they had a role to fill in our community. Some needed the safety of home or simply couldn’t afford to be away any longer.
“This is an opportunity for this government to acknowledge that by reimbursing airfare costs of residents who worked to support the government’s evacuation orders, and then tried but could not be served by the GNWT’s re-entry flights.”
Communities minister Shane Thompson was unmoved.
“Unfortunately, no, we will not be reimbursing people that decided to take the flights out,” he said in response to questioning from Cleveland.
“We had a process of evacuating people … and we were following that process.”
Thursday went ‘pretty smoothly’
Regarding the extraordinary outdoor lineup for flights out in mid-August, Thompson said: “Thursday wasn’t perfect. I had conversations with the military people that were there helping us. They were pretty calm about it. They said for the first day, it was actually going pretty smoothly.
“Was there a long lineup? Yes. Were flights not ready to go? Yes. But I can tell you, the next day, we had people out and when people were registering, we were getting them on flights.”
As for people who reported receiving no notification about a flight back to Yellowknife, Thompson appeared to suggest those people should have contacted their MLA or a member of cabinet to be sure of their travel home – an unusual policy that was not communicated at the time.
“We got numerous phone calls from the members, including members on this side, that had residents that didn’t get their information,” he said, referring first to regular MLAs and then to cabinet.
“Yes, we heard some of the challenges that were there and we were trying to get people on those flights.”
Asked if his department would launch a program to reimburse people who missed out on a GNWT flight home through no fault of their own, the minister said again: “At this point in time, I am not looking at that.” He did, though, add: “It’s something that maybe cabinet can look at later on.”
There is not much of a later-on left for the present cabinet. A territorial election takes place in mid-November and, in practice, ministers have days remaining to achieve anything material.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said on Thursday she will not seek re-election in November. Part of Cleveland’s argument for flight reimbursement came down to an interpretation of the premier’s words on August 16, the day Yellowknife declared an evacuation order.
Cochrane and other officials appeared in a video press conference that evening as the order was declared. Cleveland maintains that many people knew of an impending evacuation hours in advance of that press conference. The premier has said she was informed of an evacuation at noon that day.
“During the press conference, the premier asked residents who could get on a commercial flight and leave town to do so. And they did,” Cleveland asserted on Thursday.
A recording of the press conference is less clear on the matter.
At one point, the premier says: “People that do not have enough money to leave town in their vehicles, and need supports to get out of town: we’re recommending that you actually meet at the multiplex, take a bus or to take a plane. We don’t want to see you broke down on the highway.”
Speaking in the legislature on Friday, after first publication of this article, Cochrane said the full context of her remark showed: “I did not encourage residents to get on commercial flights.”
Thompson, responding to Cleveland a day earlier, objected to any suggestion that the territory had specifically instructed people to buy a flight if they could.
Cleveland, though, argues that the GNWT’s hurriedly constructed systems did not come through for everyone – and ignoring the territory’s hand in some residents’ decisions to fly commercially is unfair.
“It is clear not every evacuation support system was built the same,” she concluded in a statement to the legislature on Thursday.
“Unfortunately, for some it came down to where they stood in a line.”