A wildfire near Hay River is seen from Fort Providence on September 2, 2023. Photo: Thorsten Gohl
The Dene Nation is calling for a full, independent public inquiry to begin as soon as possible into the Northwest Territories’ 2023 wildfire response.
In a news release on Thursday, Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine said a public inquiry should encourage everyone in the NWT to talk about their experiences.
The NWT government has already said it is planning a wildfire review, though the scope of the only request for proposals issued to date does not include public engagement.
Behchokǫ̀, Fort Smith, Jean Marie River, Hay River, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Enterprise, Ndılǫ, Dettah, Yellowknife, Kakisa and Wekweètì all evacuated this summer – with some communities facing multiple evacuations and some residents displaced for more than a month at a time.
“We must discuss lessons learned and how to prepare for next spring and into the future,” said Antoine, calling for Dene knowledge to be incorporated into wildfire response.
“Our people have been here since the beginning of time and have always relied on our own understanding of the land and the environment around us to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Clearly, emergency management and response in the NWT must incorporate the expertise of the Dene,” he said.
The territorial government’s wildfire response is directed by its Forest Fire Management policy, which asserts that fire management should “draw upon local knowledge.”
Antoine also wants Dene authority and governance incorporated into future wildfire response plans.
The GNWT was criticized in August by Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty, who said his government was not consulted when its members were evacuated.
GNWT hiring contractor for review
The territorial government is currently seeking proposals for a 2023 wildfire response review. The request for proposals closes on Friday afternoon.
The stated aim of the third-party review is to determine if the GNWT fire management program’s structure, budgets, and administration are “adequate” to meet expectations, and to review what was done in 2023 and whether those actions met departmental requirements.
“It is also important to determine ways that the thoughts and concerns of the residents, organizations and industries of the NWT can be incorporated into planning and decision-making, to ensure that the policy continues to be reflective of the needs of the broader population,” the request for proposals continues.
Despite this, the document asserts that public engagement is not a part of the project’s scope, but rather asks for recommendations to be made for the type of public engagement that the Department of Environment and Climate Change might perform in the future.
“GNWT staff, external experts and key stakeholders” will be consulted.
Asked by a potential bidder if “key stakeholders” included aircraft and equipment contractors, municipalities and Indigenous governments, the GNWT issued a response stating: “This review is not reviewing public perspectives.”
The scope of work also calls for a review of the department’s preparedness and response, the wildfires and response leading to the loss of homes this summer, a timeline of major events, 2023 wildfire statistics.
NWT environment minister Shane Thompson has previously said a separate review will be carried out by the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs into the territory’s 2023 wildfire response, and that review will involve “going out to the public.” Further details of that review are not yet available.
Thompson also told the legislature late last month that cabinet members are recommending their successors “develop a special committee” after the election to lead a further assessment of the 2023 wildfire crisis.
“We don’t want to interfere with the other work that ECC’s doing and Municipal and Community Affairs is going to do. I think it can be worked together, and it could be part of a good solution,” Thompson said.