Community leaders in the Northwest Territories were surprised last week by a letter in which the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) provided a "clarification of roles and responsibilities and the status of funding going forward."
Tommy Kakfwi, Chief of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., said that after receiving the letter, his "trust in leadership at the territorial level" was gone.
The letter, dated Sept. 9, went out to all N.W.T. communities indicating that the department would continue to pay for personal protective equipment (PPE), but not reimburse communities for other COVID-19-related expenses like isolation costs.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has become normal operations for all organizations. The best practice recommendations for your community is to budget for the activities you can anticipate and create a contingency for emergency event," the letter read.
Kakfwi and Norman Wells, N.W.T., Mayor Frank Pope said the statement is contrary to what they were told in ongoing meetings with the department throughout the pandemic.
"We were told right from May of 2020, 'keep your expenses, keep your receipts, you will be reimbursed,'" Pope said. "This caught us totally by surprise."
MACA spokesperson Jay Boast said that the letter was sent out in response to questions raised at the Northwest Territories Association of Communities meeting of mayors and chiefs in late August.
"The minister of MACA felt that clarification on COVID-19 funding would be valuable to all communities," Boast told CBC News in an email.
"Communities have to prioritize their spending based on their fiscal realities. MACA helps provide support and guidance on those issues on a regular basis and the letter from the minister was part of that process."
In November 2020, Boast said that $4.7 million was distributed to communities to support their own priorities through the COVID-19 Safe Restart Funding. Another $2.4 million was added to the fund in April 2021.
The department continues to facilitate PPE for community governments, provide cleaning supplies for isolation units as well as food hampers to communities who request them.
For communities to deduct COVID-19 expenses from their regular budgets, Pope said, would cut down services provided to the community members.
"We do not budget for emergencies, we budget for programs and services for communities," he said.
"When you get a fire, do we pay for the firefighters, do we pay for the forestry to go out and do the job on our behalf? No, that's paid for by government. This is no different in our opinion."
Response letter presses for reimbursement
In response to MACA's letter, Pope, along with Kakfwi and Tulita Mayor Douglas Yallee, wrote a return letter demanding community reimbursement for COVID-19 expenses.
"We were unequivocally told by MACA representatives on all levels that we would be reimbursed for our COVID-19 related expenses," the response letter said. It added that the message of reimbursement had been relayed to leaders as recently as the first week of September at a regional-level emergency operations meetings.
"It appears that our regional offices were not informed on a consistent basis of decisions made at the ministerial level," Pope wrote.
Pope estimates the costs of the pandemic added up to approximately $250,000-$300,000 for Norman Wells alone.
"To tell us to budget for emergencies such as COVID because this is the new norm is abysmal on your part. All our monies presently go to funding our operational costs which provide much needed services to our community members," Pope wrote in his letter to MACA Minister Shane Thompson.
"An emergency such as this — and its related costs — will break us."