Last Friday, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson hopped on a loader and started clearing large chunks of ice from the once-flooded highway to Vale Island.
Within hours, he received a call from Hay River’s mayor, Kandis Jameson, upset that Simpson was clearing the road before proper inspections had been completed.
“My first reaction was: are you kidding me? We just spent a week keeping people safe,” Jameson later told Cabin Radio.
The mayor said she understood Simpson was trying to help, but she felt his decision to clear a highway the territory had not yet deemed safe undermined the town’s efforts to protect residents.
“When you go into recovery mode, your first deal is to assess the damage. And that’s why people couldn’t come home right away,” Jameson said.
“You don’t want people coming home, turning on a light and getting electrocuted.”
As Simpson saw it, the ice blocking the road was a safety hazard for those residents that chose to stay on Vale Island.
“To me, road access is so important right now, whether it’s the Old Town or Paradise Gardens or the reserve … Without road access you can’t get the services that you need in there,” Simpson told Cabin Radio.
He said he was particularly concerned about ensuring emergency services could access residents that had chosen to stay in their homes in Old Town, and he communicated this to the GNWT’s minister of infrastructure, Diane Archie.
Simpson said only once he knew the territory had begun cleaning up the road did he begin clearing it from the other end.
“We got it done, and we did it safely,” he said.
“I get where you’re coming from,” Jameson said of that approach. “I understand you want to help, but it’s not helping when you’re putting people at risk.”
The Town of Hay River has implemented a gradual, measured reopening plan communicated through daily, sometimes twice-daily email updates.
A system of zones applied to the town indicates which essential services are available in which neighbourhood.
On Sunday evening, when that reopening plan was launched, regions like Old Town, the West Point First Nation and West Channel were marked as orange zones. There were multiple services the town would usually supply that were not available.
“In the case of Vale Island, we had no road, which means we had no water and no sewer, because they’re all trucked. And also we had no power, because we had lines down,” Jameson said.
The first version of the plan stated the area would be accessible by road within two to three days.
The previous Friday, when Simpson began clearing away ice, those zone breakdowns were not yet in effect.
“I just talked to somebody this morning. They said: ‘Well, we heard you were led away in handcuffs’,” Simpson said of the fallout from his interaction with the mayor.
The MLA said he did hear from government officials that the police were being called to intervene in his operation, but he never saw any police show up to the highway where he was working.
Jameson said the high-pressure context of flood recovery may have led her to take a tone she now regrets, but she remained adamant a procedural rebuild is crucial to maintaining safety for all.
The territorial government only formally reopened the highway on Tuesday afternoon.
Lack of communication
The need for coordination between municipal and territorial jurisdictions is far from over.
Politicians at various levels of government have said it could take months, if not years before the town is restored to its pre-flood condition.
Simpson said he believes a lack of clear communication between different levels of operation is a big problem in the cleanup process.
He would like to see the territory install a flood response team so towns that are victims of flooding can access more support in organizing and rolling out the rebuild, and don’t have to bear the brunt of the effort while residents are still in shock.
Simpson said he is trying to walk a fine line between supporting the need for residents to get back to their homes and the town’s need to do it safely, and to code.
“You want it all done safely … but that’s going to take time,” he said.
“So you have to look at other options, that can still be done safely and that allow people to address the concern of the mould issue in buildings and that type of thing.
“At the end of the day, for me it’s about residents. It’s about making sure people are getting the support that they need.”