N.W.T. sets out financial support offer to wildfire evacuees

·3 min read

The Northwest Territories government has announced a one-off payment for many Hay River and KFN wildfire evacuees as well as funding for the community governments hosting them.

To date, nearly 2,000 people fleeing the wildfire have registered as evacuees. While the official evacuee shelter is Yellowknife's multiplex, there are evacuees sheltering in Enterprise, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, and Fort Smith.

Some Hay River residents have begun returning after the town's evacuation order was lifted on Thursday, but others – including Kátł’odeeche First Nation residents – are unable to go home yet.

The territory's Department of Finance is offering individual evacuees what it calls the Evacuee Income Disruption Support program. Eligible residents over the age of 17 will receive a one-time payment of $750 if they can prove they lost employment income due to the evacuation order.

Hay River and Kátł’odeeche First Nation residents have already described the strain the evacuation placed on their personal lives and finances, and have been calling for more support over the past week.

In the N.W.T. legislature on Thursday, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland questioned why the territory was not offering a larger sum to evacuees.

"When we look to the south and what's happening in Alberta, Alberta residents are receiving $1,250 per adult and $550 per dependent child," Cleveland asserted.

"There is such a high cost of living in the Northwest Territories and quite often people are evacuated for weeks at a time. To expect residents to be able to pay their bills... even one week is 25 percent of your monthly income."

Asked by Cleveland if the sum could be increased, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek described Hay River's second evacuation in two years as "heartbreaking" but said neither she nor her government had the capacity to "make everybody whole" through compensatory payments.

"No relief program that we ever come up with is likely to be one that is fully satisfactory," said Wawzonek, adding that Alberta had a billion-dollar surplus from which to draw payments for evacuees whereas the N.W.T. continues to run an annual deficit.

She said the half-million dollars raised by United Way N.W.T. for evacuees was important and the territory was "looking at ways we can better support them going forward, so that that process can be made more easy."

"We're trying to make do with the resources that we have, with the public dollars that we have available," the minister said.

In an earlier press release, Premier Caroline Cochrane wrote: “Residents of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Hay River have endured natural disasters requiring evacuation for the second straight year.

"Our government recognizes the strain that this can cause to individuals and families, and we have introduced two funding programs to provide some level of financial solace and stability during these uncertain times.

"Together, we stand strong, committed to supporting one another and rebuilding resilient communities in the face of adversity."

The second program mentioned by Cochrane is for community governments, offering a sliding scale from $20,000 to $40,000 based on the number of registered evacuees they welcomed.

That funding is to cover expenses like overtime costs for employees providing services, as well as food, security, and cleaning services at evacuation centres.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio