The Government of NorthWest Territories (GNWT) has begun hosting wildfire community engagements in some of the places hardest-hit by last year’s wildfires. Hundreds of residents had stories to share.

On August 13 – the day a wildfire blew across the South Slave with extraordinary ferocity, crossing highways and cutting off communications – Linda Carman recalls the elderly couple across the street from her deciding to stay the night in the town.

“They happened to go to the airport the next morning and saw that the military was in, and realized that they could get evacuated to Fort McMurray. What if that fire had come through? What would have happened to them?” Carman asked.

She told that story at the N.W.T. government’s community engagement meeting in Hay River, held on March 11 and led by the territory’s wildfire officials in a bid to hear from residents and brief them on the season before and ahead.

Around 75 residents turned up to the Hay River meeting. An open house-style meeting in Fort Smith on March 14 attracted around 200 people. A meeting in Enterprise hosted 24 residents of the tiny community, which was devastated by last year’s fires.

You can still share your comments about last year’s wildfire response by filling out an online form. N.W.T. wildfire information officer Mike Westwick says the GNWT has received around 45 online responses so far. 

Other territorial government agencies, like the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, are attending the sessions. Importantly, however, the current series of meetings is not tied to the GNWT’s main review of last year’s wildfires and evacuations, which is now being led by the Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs. 

These sessions are instead part of the Department of Environment and Climate Change’s separate processes. Parks Canada, which had a large role in fighting fires near Fort Smith, collaborated on the Fort Smith meeting.

Westwick says these engagements are ECC’s standard practice after each wildfire season.

“We do community engagement every year,” Westwick explained. “It’s important we hear from community and Indigenous leaders and residents in the regions, and offer opportunities for people to learn more about what’s happening in their backyard as we manage wildfires.”

But not all residents feel as though the meetings helped.

“Being what it was, I was very proud of the residents of Hay River in how they conducted themselves,” said Wally Schumann, a former Hay River South MLA and ex-minister. 

Schumann says the GNWT and many residents had different impressions of what the meeting was about.

Schumann says residents were looking for answers about how last year’s emergencies were handled.

“People want to be able to have their say,” he said. ” It’s probably a big part of the healing process for a lot of people.”

Hay River councillor Robert Bouchard says ECC delivered a presentation containing information about the wildfire that burned through the area. The presentation described weather conditions, tracked events on a map, and even included an assessment of a caribou herd tracked by the department during the fires.

“They talked about expanding their circumference around communities and obviously firesmarting is a question that came up quite a bit,” said Bouchard.  “I thought some of it was very informational. I thought the planning going forward was informational.”

Bouchard says the meeting focused on the wildfire response by explaining to residents the magnitude of the fire risk, what action was taken, as well as plans for the future as vegetation grows back. 

But holding a meeting about ECC’s goals without scope to include the wider circumstances – and the responsibilities of other departments – left some people unsatisfied.

“I’m not sure how you have a meeting without addressing the extreme situation we were in,” said Bouchard. “You’ve got to look at the history before you can look at what you want to do going forward.”

“We had no problem with how they fought the fire, but our problem was with how the communication of the risk occurred,” said Carman. 

“What ECC was doing, their main focus, was to fight the fire. Their focus is not necessarily to protect people. That is a Maca thing, as far as I’m concerned, and Maca failed.”

At the meeting in Enterprise, some attendees were residents who fought fires that saved buildings in the hamlet. 

“They were admittedly nervous about coming to Enterprise because of everything that had happened,” the hamlet’s senior administrative officer, Blair Porter, said of the GNWT employees running the meeting.

“From the GNWT’s perspective, they tried to assure everybody it wasn’t that Enterprise was forgotten. It was just this fire was beyond anything they had seen,” Porter continued. 

“Not everybody was receptive to that, but that was the general intent.”

To be there or not to be there

Some residents did not attend their local meeting, despite having strong feelings about the territory’s wildfire response. They say they don’t believe their input will yield change.

Before retiring, Bill Reimer spent 30 years working for the GNWT. He was a volunteer firefighter and an assistant fire marshal for 10 years. He did not attend his nearest meeting, in Fort Smith.

“They’re doing consultations where they’re going to tell us what we’re supposed to think,” said Reimer, a Fort Smith resident. “I think a lot of this is just a public relations exercise.”

While Reimer says he is no expert on wildfires, he still believes public input should inform future fire seasons, and says he wants the opportunity to share input in what he considers to be a meaningful way.

Helena Katz, another Fort Smith resident who decided not to attend the meeting, has vocally supported a public inquiry into last year’s fires – something the GNWT has said it won’t do until its current reviews are over, and even then only if obvious gaps remain.

Katz says she remains skeptical about whether review processes like the ECC one allow an adequate opportunity for residents to collectively ask questions, voice concerns or share their experiences.

“It’s not a consultation. It’s more answering questions about how they responded to fires and the fire season,” said Katz. 

“I don’t think it was intended as a consultation, because the review that ECC’s consultant is doing does not include consultations with communities.” 

This distinction is important to Katz, who says the community hasn’t had an opportunity to be heard by the GNWT. To her, it’s important that residents are able to share their insights with the GNWT – to help the healing process, as Schumann had observed in Hay River, and to inform future wildfire responses.

She wants more than the online form, and more than the meeting.

“We haven’t really had an opportunity as a community to come together and talk about what happened, and to share and to listen to – and learn from – each other, but also be able to share with government what happened and what our concerns are,” Katz continued. 

The Fort Smith open house allowed residents to move between officials, holding conversations in small groups, rather than proceeding in a town-hall format. Westwick says it was designed that way to cope with hundreds of attendees.

“The idea of having just tables, where people wander from table to table? I felt like it didn’t lend itself as well to having some of the in-depth conversations,” said Katz.

The experience of fleeing during last year’s wildfires left Carman with post-traumatic stress and anxiety. The meeting in Hay River stoked some of those experiences.

“I lost my husband that night, in that we didn’t know where each other had gone. It was one of the most frightening things in my entire life,” said Carman. “The amount of loss that we had… I mean, fortunately we lost no lives, but we came darned close.”

Bouchard estimates “about 30 pe rcent” of Hay River attendees left early – perhaps, he said, because they felt it was futile.

“Some people are actually still traumatized by the whole process, the whole event that happened, so some of them left early,” he said. “They didn’t want to see any more information.”

Michael Zak Kimble decided not to attend the meeting in Enterprise. He says he attended previous meetings hosted by Maca or ECC, but has come to feel his attendance isn’t worth it.

“I didn’t see the point in going, I truly didn’t,” he said. 

“If you were to ask Maca a question, they will never, ever give you a direct answer. I’ll begin on the mental health part – it’s just, truly, it’s a fight every day. It’s all I can really do to keep myself sane.”

Kimble feels as though he is talked to by GNWT staff “as if we’re stupid, as if we don’t know what went on or what happened, like we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

“My father, my uncle Mike and Lyne were the three that came back right after the fire went through, and they were the ones that saved whatever is left of Enterprise.”

After 10 years, Kimble and his father, Alan, bought their house in Enterprise last April, just a few months before the wildfire burned it down. Now, the two live in a trailer on a relative’s mill yard in Enterprise.

“Right now, our lives are on hold. This has taken away from our livelihood, it’s taken years off our lives and we’re still in purgatory, waiting,” said Kimble. “What I want to see our mayor do is ask those hard questions.”

Hay River mayor Kandis Jameson, who attended the meeting in her community, told Cabin Radio: “This meeting, while intentions were good, wasn’t what the public wanted.”

“I think it answered some questions,” Jameson said. “Did it answer all of them? No, it didn’t. Listening to some of the stuff that came out, it’s tough. Going home and going through it, I mean, people were in the middle of this – the fires burning.”

Inquiry calls persist

After the meeting, some residents remain confident the best way to achieve a complete review of last year’s wildfire season is an independent public inquiry.

“I’ve seen way too much stuff that gets brushed under and taken out of reports and finagled for public consumption,” said Reimer. “Things that are embarrassing to the government get left out.”

“Our position was that we were looking for an independent inquiry,” said Mayor Jameson. 

“Are we looking for something that’s going to cost the territorial government millions and millions of dollars? No. Do we want to ensure that everybody has their say, that it is independent from government, that the final results of what is going on or what happened will be not filtered – not anything – so the public gets to see what the results of this were? Absolutely, that’s what we’re looking for.”

Katz wants a public inquiry in part to provide an overarching review that accounts for overlaps and shared responsibilities between government bodies, like municipal, territorial and Indigenous governments, as well as RCMP and Parks Canada. 

Carman wants one to examine failures in communication. Schumann says an inquiry would better identify lessons to be learned and could be done without “throwing people under the bus.” Reimer wants an inquiry to explore instances in which he says people received differing levels of treatment. He wants to be sure that how your property is protected isn’t just a matter of “who you know.”

Bouchard, though, says he is equally eager to see the results of departmental reviews.

“I know they have an independent review happening, so we’ll see where that lands,” said the councillor and former MLA.

“They’ve got a short period of time. Some of those guys are very apologetic. Obviously, they’re very emotional about some stuff. They lost a firefighter last year.”

By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 22, 2024 at 06:21

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories