Fort Smith leaders and residents protested proposed power rate hikes in the first of two public hearings in Yellowknife Thursday night.
The Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) has submitted an application, asking the N.W.T.'s Public Utilities Board for rate hikes that vary from region to region between 2.5 and 10 per cent for each of the next two years.
The heads of both the power corporation and the board met at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, where they listened and responded to complaints from Fort Smith residents over video conference.
Fort Smith, along with Fort Resolution, is part of the Taltson Zone. If the board approves the application, both communities would see a 20-per-cent increase in rates in the next two years.
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos told the board Thursday all Fort Smith residents are firmly opposed to the proposed increases.
"It is totally unfair to increase rates so much, so soon — especially when the costs are not equally distributed across all N.W.T. communities," said Martselos.
She said she wants all regions to be subject to the same rate increases, pointing out the power corporation has asked for an increase of just five per cent for many other regions of the territory.
"This year's rate recommendation by NTPC is unreasonable, unjust and unacceptable," she said.
Martselos asked the board to consider the rising cost of living in the territory and the financial impact it would have on vulnerable populations.
Doug Prendergast, NTPC's manager of communications, said the Taltson Zone has higher proposed rate increases because it has had lower rates than all other zones for years.
"This is a chance to bring rates in the Taltson Zone into an appropriate area based on how much it costs to deliver electricity to customers in the Taltson Zone," he told CBC News shortly after the meeting.
He added that the rates in the Taltson Zone would still be the lowest in the N.W.T.
Prioritize renewable energy options, says Fort Smith mayor and residents
Fort Smith resident Carl Cox also voiced frustration with the price hikes.
"You guys are pricing yourselves out of the market," he told the power corporation. "You're raising your prices to the point where nobody wants to use your product."
Cox suggested solar energy would be a feasible option for many in the community, and questioned why the territorial government and the power corporation haven't made bigger efforts to prioritize renewable energy options.
Salt River Chief David Poitras also asked the board and power corporation to consider alternatives, such as electric heat.
Fort Smith Mayor Fred Daniels said the power corporation has had more than 20 years to switch over to electric heating but has not made it a priority.
"It should show the (board) that you're not with the game," said Daniels.
Earlier this year, the power corporation said current rates don't cover the cost of delivering electricity, partly because sales are declining, infrastructure is aging and more extreme weather events are happening.
Daniels said he believes the power corporation is increasing costs to offset decreasing revenues due to mine closures.
"Yellowknife has a serious problem because the mines are closing down. But we have nothing to do with that," he said.
"You can't start stealing out of these communities because you're in panic mode."
Board says it's too soon to make a decision
Allan Heron, the president of the Fort Smith Métis Council, said Fort Smith is a small community with limited resources.
"We need help," he said. "There's other ways instead of nailing us all the time."
Heron and others were critical of the board's decision to hold the meeting in Yellowknife, far from the communities most impacted by the price hikes.
"Come and talk to us, and let us know what's going on," said Heron.
Gordon Van Tighem, chair of the public utilities board, told CBC News Thursday it was too soon to say whether the power corporation's application would be approved.
"At this point, I couldn't even guess about that decision," he said.
"They've got the rationale behind that request. We have to analyze it now, determine if we see it the same way and make a decision."
The public hearing continued Friday morning at 9 a.m. and runs until 12:30 p.m.