An NWT minister told MLAs she should have intervened earlier to help flooded communities as their own, local responses were inadequate.
As Paulie Chinna made those remarks, regular MLAs castigated the minister and her government for, in their view, doing too little to help and failing to offer easy access to long-term assistance for Dehcho residents hit by this month’s floods.
After Chinna and senior officials spent a Tuesday evening briefing setting out a disaster assistance policy that offers up to $100,000 for each applicant, regular MLAs said they still had no idea how people were supposed to apply or when they should expect money.
If we’re baffled, several MLAs suggested, imagine how residents must feel.
“I, throughout this whole presentation, don’t understand what people on the ground should be doing,” said Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson.
“I think people need some money in-hand now,” he added, urging Chinna to use more of the emergency powers granted to her as the minister of municipal and community affairs.
“If we’re not getting answers here, I hate to think what it’s like for folks on the ground,” said Kevin O’Reilly, the Frame Lake MLA.
“We need a lot more specificity here and you need to have somebody on the ground to help navigate all of these sorts of services that cut right across government. If I was in your shoes I’d be looking at modular homes, camps, anything to get those people back into communities as quickly as we can.”
Chinna promised that people would be appropriately accommodated by the time colder temperatures return later this year.
“You’ve said that’s going to happen before winter sets in. We’re going to hold your feet to the fire on that,” O’Reilly warned.
‘I went into the community anyway’
Tuesday’s briefing rapidly turned into a sustained critique of the territory’s flood response.
Following a 20-minute presentation by senior members of Chinna’s department, Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge relayed concern he had heard from constituency members that the GNWT “had been telling people to prepare for months in advance yet was still slow to respond” when flooding actually happened.
Chinna replied by reiterating the territory’s stance that emergencies are first dealt with at a community level, then communities ask the NWT government for assistance as needed. The territory did not initially intervene as communities like Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River did not immediately request it, she said, adding that when she first tried to visit those communities, she was told not to come.
“When I went to Fort Simpson, I was told continuously that the community was all right and they were functioning and able to handle and work with their emergency management,” Chinna said.
Yet the minister said she insisted on travelling and, on arrival, found several areas of the local emergency response to be lacking.
“They didn’t feel that this was the right time. I went into the community anyway,” she told MLAs of her trip to Fort Simpson.
“I saw areas of improvement that we could have recognized immediately. The tent situation and the way that the campsite was set up could obviously have been improved.
“I would have liked to see outside people coming in, supporting the residents, and giving some more relief to the volunteers that were leading the emergency management. I noticed that a lot of the team was exhausted.
“I should have gone in a lot earlier [but communities] didn’t want the minister to come in at that time.”
That explanation was not good enough for some members of the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight, the panel of all regular MLAs that scrutinizes how the territorial government works.
“It surprised me that, watching the news and Facebook, it took the GNWT some time to really acknowledge that flooding was happening in Jean Marie and Simpson, and also the severity of that flooding,” said Rocky Simpson, the MLA for Hay River South.
“The GNWT was actually fortunate that people throughout the NWT jumped in and provided the basic necessities that communities needed to survive, like tents, tarps, and food. I’m not sure why that happened.
“It took several days, I think, for communication to go out publicly and then another few days before there was a site visit by the minister as well.”
Frieda Martselos, the MLA for Thebacha, said the disaster assistance policy presented on Tuesday – effectively a means of collecting every claim and presenting them to the federal government as a batch – seemed “like a lot of bureaucracy.”
“I hope we stay focused on the victims of the flood,” she said.
‘Assistance,’ not full reimbursement
Those victims and their communities had requested last week that the NWT government put such a policy in place, deputy municipal affairs minister Laura Gareau told regular MLAs.
Gareau, who has only been in the job for a week after senior GNWT officials were shuffled, said one of her department’s staff would lead a government-wide committee implementing the new policy, which is designed to unlock $80,000 in federal cash for every claim of $100,000 submitted to the GNWT. ($100,000 is the maximum per applicant. Gareau said the program was “assistance,” not insurance or compensation, and would not fully reimburse losses.)
Officials repeatedly gave no clear answer regarding how residents should compile applications for help or when they should expect money.
At times, answers appeared to contradict each other. Gareau, early in the evening, said the committee would pay out claims without necessarily waiting for federal funding. Chinna later said her department did not have emergency funding “sitting there to deal with these kinds of situation” and was “not budgeted” to start spending extra cash before federal money was guaranteed, though her answer seemed to cover a broader range of expenses the territory now faces.
The NWT’s application to Canada for help will be territory-wide: one application for all affected communities, from Little Buffalo River and Hay River in the South Slave to communities now on flood watch in the Beaufort Delta.
The disaster assistance committee has hired an assessor with prior experience working in flooded NWT communities. Damage will be appraised and those reports used to help the application to Ottawa.
How much money the NWT will end up requesting from Canada is not clear. MLAs assumed the cost would run well into the millions of dollars, but no real estimate was given. Officials said they needed a full assessment of the damage first.
Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River, both Dehcho communities, are so far the worst-affected in the NWT by a river breakup season described as “unprecedented” at Tuesday’s meeting. Fort Good Hope saw some flooding on Tuesday as water levels rose by two metres. Aklavik is on high alert.
The last time the NWT used a disaster assistance policy like the one now being created was in 2012, when Nahanni Butte flooded.
Ivan Russell, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs’ director of public safety, said 11 homes had been damaged that year and that claim alone – far smaller than the one anticipated for the Dehcho this time around – ran to more than $2 million.