Caroline Wawzonek, centre, appears at a public hearing in January 2023.
The NWT’s finance minister says “enhancements and increases” are on the way for programs that help businesses affected by wildfires and evacuations.
The detail of the extra supports is not yet available, but Caroline Wawzonek said on Wednesday she hopes to roll out amendments “in the coming really short days.”
At the moment, the main GNWT offerings are up to $5,000 through a specially created section of its Seed entrepreneurial program, and a further $5,000 through a separate wildfire assistance grant.
Some businesses have said their monthly rent alone costs more than the combined sum of those programs. In many cases, businesses were unable to open for weeks on end while communities were evacuated – but most of their costs kept coming.
Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, speaking in the legislature on Wednesday, highlighted that companies in South Slave communities were, in some cases, experiencing their third evacuation in 16 months.
He highlighted wildfire damage to Castaways Cottages, a tourist destination just west of Hay River’s downtown, the burning of homes and enterprises on Patterson’s Road, and the destruction first by flood, and now by fire, of the Paradise Valley agricultural area.
Simpson also listed the devastation of companies like Winnie’s and Sunrise Cabinets in Enterprise, most of which was destroyed by an August wildfire.
“We need financial supports that take that reality in consideration. It was three times that our communities have been dealt a blow by Mother Nature,” Simpson said, referring to a flood in 2022 and two wildfire-related evacuations this summer.
“We need that financial support not to be limited in scope.”
Wawzonek, responding, said: “I do expect in the coming really short days that we’ll be able to be signalling some enhancements and increases to the existing programs.
“That would indeed take into consideration all of the affected communities but, in particular, look at those that were affected by the most lengthy periods of evacuation over the summer.”
She said the territory is also “looking at whether there’s some additional flexibility that we could have in terms of what is covered, as well as some additional flexibility in terms of the periods to be covered – again, taking into consideration the uniqueness of this last summer and its impacts on businesses across the territory.”
A timeline for the rollout is not yet clear.
In practice, there are a matter of days for any new or amended programs to launch before many government operations – particularly on the communications side – wind down for the territorial election. The GNWT applies what it calls a “blackout period,” during which new programs and initiatives are not normally communicated, in the weeks around each election.
Wawzonek said she and colleagues continue to raise the plight of the NWT private sector with federal counterparts, including the fresh damage inflicted on the tourism industry after multiple years of pandemic-related travel restrictions.
But the news for individuals still feeling the evacuations’ financial after-effects was less promising.
The minister said staff were “turning our minds” to ways to better address residents’ needs in the aftermath of this summer’s wildfire crisis, but she was “not going to be announcing a new program here on the floor.”
Instead, she said, the GNWT is “trying, certainly, to look at what collective of people were not able to access the supports that have been in place.”
Various groups of evacuees, such as those who paid for commercial flights out of danger, have appealed – without success, to date – for financial assistance.
Some regular MLAs have argued not only that existing supports are not enough, but also that panicked residents, evacuating in a hurry, did not always make the most financially sound choice, such as heading for an evacuation centre and immediately acquiring free accommodation. Others, MLAs have said, were physically unable to make that choice.