Dene Nation continues push for public inquiry on N.W.T.'s handling of wildfires

Fred Sangris, the chief of Ndilǫ, said he's embarrassed by how the GNWT handled the wildfire response.  (Mark Hadlari/CBC - image credit)
Fred Sangris, the chief of Ndilǫ, said he's embarrassed by how the GNWT handled the wildfire response. (Mark Hadlari/CBC - image credit)

The Dene Nation is continuing to push for an independent and public inquiry into the handling of the 2023 wildfires that led to the evacuation of about 70 per cent of the territory's residents.

In February they sent a letter to the N.W.T. commissioner, demanding that one be held. 

And on Monday elders and community leaders met for a virtual discussion about their concerns with how the the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) handled the response, in hopes that they won't have to go through something like that again. 

Representatives of the Dene Nation said during the meeting the public inquiry should include speaking to members of communities who were impacted, including elders, women and children. 

Just last month N.W.T. MLAs voted 10-6 in favour of a non-binding motion to hold a public inquiry, with all cabinet members voting against it. Premier RJ Simpson said later that he would only consider a public inquiry after the two reviews his government has contracted out are completed. Those reviews will be done for the department of Municipal and Community Affairs and the department of Environment and Climate Change.

Ndilǫ Chief Fred Sangris remains critical of how the GNWT handled the evacuation, and said it was embarrassing how they handled they handled the wildfire response.

"We don't believe that they communicated properly. Evacuation happened very fast paced," he said.

"People were driving out fires on both sides of the highway to Behchokǫ̀. Kids screaming, parents yelling for their children. They have no idea what was happening, it panicked people. The premier and the government who chose to do it this way panicked people," he said.

Sangris also outlined concerns with the firefighting response, saying that young people who could have been trained to handle the response were evacuated from the N.W.T. and help had to be called in from outside the territory.

Sangris said the best solution he could see to this would be to go to Ottawa and ask for enough money to train hundreds of people across N.W.T. 

He also said it was embarrassing that MLA and Speaker Shane Thompson didn't vote in favour of an inquiry, despite being in charge of the emergency response last year during his time as minister of environment and minister of community affairs.

However, according to the rules of the Legislative Assembly, the Speaker does not vote on motions except to break a tie.

"Lots of things went wrong, the government knows it, that's why they don't want to do an inquiry," Sangris said.

Sangris also said there needs to be Indigenous leadership involved with future wildfire responses. That would help use traditional knowledge to help fight the fires.

Trevor Teed, a member of Dene Nation who spoke at the meeting, said there were many problems with the evacuation, and characterized it as disorganized.

He said elders from YKDFN were sent to Calgary without support.

"Some of them didn't even have a suitcase with any clothing in it," he said, adding that some didn't eat while at the Calgary airport hotel. He said they were given food vouchers, but had no way of going into the city to use them.

He said elders also didn't speak English and didn't have money for transit.

"All of that was not good," he said, adding that it was poorly handled between the GNWT and the Red Cross.

The hope from the Dene Nation is that the N.W.T. Commissioner Margaret Thom will take the letter to Ottawa and raise the issue of an independent inquiry with the federal government.

The Dene Nation is urging members of the public to also contact Commissioner Thom and express their concerns and desires for an independent public inquiry. 

The GNWT did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.