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N.W.T. adds eligibility criteria to evacuation travel support program

'What we're trying to target is a gap for individuals who don't have any other means of finding some benefit or some supports to help their journey back,' said Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s finance minister, seen here in 2022. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)
'What we're trying to target is a gap for individuals who don't have any other means of finding some benefit or some supports to help their journey back,' said Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s finance minister, seen here in 2022. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)

The N.W.T.'s finance minister is defending the roll-out of a program to provide money to wildfire evacuees who fled their communities by car — and the late addition of eligibility rules for applicants.

Caroline Wawzonek said the addition of eligibility criteria to the application form, several days after the program was announced with no mention of eligibility criteria, simply represents "some evolution around how to message" the goals of the program.

Under the Evacuation Travel Support Program, people ordered to evacuate their communities and who left by car can apply for $750 per vehicle if they travelled out of the N.W.T., or $400 per vehicle if they fled to somewhere within the N.W.T.

However, an online form asks funding applicants to attest that they "have not received any other financial support intended to offset evacuation travel expenses from my employer, insurance company or any other source."  If they have received such support, they're not eligible for the government funds.

Evacuees have reported feeling stressed and exasperated by the inconsistent information they've received from officials about financial aid and accommodations.

In an email to CBC News on Thursday, an N.W.T. government spokesperson acknowledged "growing pains" associated with the new program, and said residents had expressed concerns about the eligibility requirements, the definition of financial support, and what sort of personal information they need to provide when applying.

Thousands of N.W.T. residents were forced to evacuate their communities last month, and it's still not clear when they'll be able to return home. Many have fled to Alberta, but also Manitoba, B.C., the Yukon and other places.

"What we're trying to target is a gap for individuals who don't have any other means of finding some benefit or some supports to help their journey back," Wawzonek said on Thursday.

Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, after an evacuation order was given due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada August 16, 2023.  REUTERS/Pat Kane     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, after an evacuation order was given due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada August 16, 2023. REUTERS/Pat Kane TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3 last month after an evacuation order was given for the city. Under a new program, the territorial government is offering money to residents who had to evacuate their communities and did so by vehicle. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

People who have insurance to help fund their return, or support through their employer, are not the people who need the help, the minister said.

"That's not a gap the government through public dollars is looking to fill," Wawzonek said.

She said there was pressure to develop and announce the program quickly. That meant that some of the details were to be ironed out later.

"This form has been developed over a matter of days and it's meant to apply to potentially many thousands of residents," Wawzonek said.

"People were starting to ask questions about, 'how will I plan my way back?'"

Wawzonek said the changes to the funding application form don't indicate a change in the basic intention of the support program. It's just a matter of clarifying the details, she said.

"I understand the frustration, we are trying to get the information out as fast as we can."

The minister also defended the amount of support the territorial government is offering evacuees, saying the N.W.T. offers "arguably more services than what almost any jurisdiction does."

"We're already doing quite a lot. I just don't want ever people to think that we think it's enough," she said.

"In a perfect world, sure, there'd be more to be done. But at the end of the day, I'm facing the bill for the evacuation centres, for the accommodations, for the food, for those programs."