“I had 15 minutes to load up my car. I couldn’t find my cat, my young kitten – she wouldn’t come when I called, so I had to evacuate without my cat. That was very scary and very sad.”

Jannet Ann Leggett is still renovating her Hay River home after 2022’s flood. Now, she’s recounting memories of 2023’s two wildfire evacuations so visceral that she adds: “Coming back, it’s almost like I have PTSD.”

Leggett’s cat somehow survived five weeks of her absence. When she rolled back into her driveway, she said her cat “emerged from the bushes, going, ‘Meow, meow, meow, where have you been?'”

Now, the Northwest Territories communities of Hay River and Enterprise must find a way to survive, too.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent a day visiting Hay River, the neighbouring Kátł’odeeche First Nation and the devastated hamlet of Enterprise to the south, where only a minority of homes are still standing.

A day after he left, Hay River held a welcome-home celebration and a gathering to thank the firefighters and emergency responders who spent most of the summer protecting the community.

At that event, Leggett – who acknowledged she was still “feeling the sadness and going through the grief process” – questioned what Trudeau’s visit might really mean in the long term.

“Without wanting to get too political, a lot of us in Hay River feel the only reason we got any funding whatsoever was because Yellowknife was evacuated. If Yellowknife had not been evacuated, there wouldn’t have been the interest, either by the federal government or certainly Prime Minister Trudeau, in what was happening in Hay River,” she told Cabin Radio.

“This is our third in two years, and now he’s here. Unfortunately, there’s a sense that it’s perhaps a media opportunity.

“We really feel a kind of resentment that we couldn’t get any funding and all of a sudden, Yellowknife’s evacuated and the prime minister flies into Yellowknife and makes a statement. Which is great, but that had to happen before we could be considered, and so that’s something that weighs heavily, I think, on a number of residents’ hearts.”

Support has ‘got to be quicker’

Kandis Jameson, Hay River’s mayor, doesn’t feel that way.

“It wasn’t a photo op,” Jameson said at the same gathering.

“He came to acknowledge what this community had been through, what happened to Enterprise. Respecting that office is huge for me, and it was really an honour to meet the man and that he came. And it wasn’t about politics. It was about humanity. 

“It was good to sit down and discuss, and for him to see first-hand the destruction and what we were up against. And we won that battle.”

“I’m glad that he actually came here,” added Rocky Simpson, who spoke on almost the last day of his four-year term as Hay River South’s MLA. Simpson is running for re-election against Wally Schumann and Vince McKay.

Simpson hopes Trudeau’s visit might get things moving for residents in need.

“There needs to be some financial assistance, for sure, and it’s got to be a lot quicker than we’ve seen. That takes both the federal government and the territorial government to work together, because there seems to be a bit of a disconnect there,” Simpson said.

“It’s going to take probably a few years for the businesses that were really impacted, and that actually had to shut down, to recover.”

Schumann, who was the Hay River South MLA from 2015 to 2019, noted that even the process of recovering from the May 2022 flood, the worst in the town’s history, is far from over, never mind the wildfires and their effects.

“It seems like it’s dragging on and dragging on and people are getting tired of that,” he said of the flood recovery process. 

“And then when you have two subsequent evacuations after the flood, that puts a lot of stress and anxiety on not just businesses, but the whole community.”

Of Trudeau’s visit, he said: “I was a little bit surprised, to be honest with you, that there was no type of funding announcement around disaster mitigation with the federal government. But maybe that stuff’s going on behind closed doors and they just haven’t got that stuff worked out yet.”

‘The federal government has their back’

Michael McLeod, the N.W.T.’s Liberal MP, was formerly the Deh Cho MLA, representing Enterprise, Fort Providence, Kakisa and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation.

“I know those people. I know how resilient they are, I know how strong they are, and I know how determined they are to keep their community safe, beautiful and moving forward. And to see tears in their eyes as they talked about what happened to their community was heartbreaking for me,” McLeod said by phone a couple of days after he and Trudeau visited the region.

“I tell you, I felt it when I left. It’s something that took a little while. Even this morning, I woke up thinking about what some of these people were saying.”

McLeod said conversations at federal and territorial level are now turning to how assistance can be sped up, and how much more money can be found.

“I think we’re well over $100 million already with advances for the floods that we fast-tracked and the money for equipment, the money for personnel costs, the money through CanNor for business support. And the Government of the Northwest Territories is asking for another $75-million advance for these fires. So all those programs are kicking in, but we’re also looking to see what else we can do,” McLeod said.

“Right now, especially in the community of Enterprise, the process going forward is through the Disaster Financial Assistance agreement, which is very slow. It takes a lot of time. We’re in a situation where there’s going to be snow on the ground within a couple of days and the people are saying, ‘We need shelter. We need a place to stay.’ So we’re seeing what the other options are.”

McLeod said Mayor of Enterprise Michael St Amour has pitched a program to bring trailers into the community as temporary shelters – having earlier had a similar move rejected by the territorial government – that may yet go ahead.

“The mayor has come forward with a proposal. I certainly support it. I know Shane Thompson also supports it,” said McLeod, referring to the N.W.T.’s communities minister, who keeps that title and his responsibilities through the current election period until the next group of MLAs sits for the first time. 

“I think a lot of people needed to have that visit,” McLeod added of Trudeau’s trip, “to know firmly that the federal government has their back. So now we’ve got to make sure everything works properly.” (The Prime Minister’s Office initially arranged an interview with Trudeau for this article but later cancelled, citing a scheduling conflict.) 

A spark to keep going

When McLeod says everything must work properly, one problem is the sheer scope of the word “everything.”

Hay River needs help to recover from past disasters, residents are trying to handle their current crises, and the Northwest Territories – plus Canada and the world – must prepare for things to remain this bad, or get worse, as a shifting climate pushes natural events toward extremes.

“Everybody’s happy, people are grateful … the positive is that we’re all still here, that we still have a community to come home to,” said Jameson at the welcome-home gathering.

“But some not so much, right? So how do we help them rebuild? What’s that going to look like, going forward?

“It’s all about partnerships and working together to make sure that stuff is done. Mitigation is going to be huge for us working forward, especially with flooding.”

A day after Trudeau left, the Town of Hay River issued a press release immediately calling for the trip to result in extra territorial and federal support.

“Hay River has plans to mitigate future threats through resilient planning and asset management. The climate change adaptation plans include raising roads to avoid future flooding, upgrading drainage systems, implementing new construction standards, and expanding and maintaining fire breaks,” the town stated.

“Additionally, Hay River has undeveloped commercial and residential development areas identified that would be flood resilient. These efforts will help prevent future events from causing millions of dollars of damage but will require federal and territorial support to complete. 

“The necessary funding will reduce the costly expense of events caused by climate change.”

McLeod said the message in Enterprise has been similarly clear: they want help to rebuild, and can’t do it alone.

“To quote one person, they said that they needed a spark to keep going, a spark to find hope. And they also said they needed that spark to believe Enterprise can be a beautiful community to call home again,” the MP recalled. 

“I thought those words were very much the whole message from the community.”

Meanwhile, McLeod said, there is an acknowledgement that levels of government in Canada need to better protect and accommodate people facing natural disasters.

“This is not a one-time incident. These fires are not like the fires of the time when I used to fight fires as a young man in Fort Providence, and the floods are hitting communities that never flooded before. So we need to be there,” he said.

As an immediate issue, he said some emergency management legislation that can be traced back to the 1950s does an inadequate job of involving Indigenous governments, a concern those governments have already raised at the territorial level. 

“We’ve seen fires happening, evacuations happening without really any requirement to formally notify Indigenous governments. That’s one example that we really need to pay attention to,” McLeod said.

Back at the welcome-home gathering, Jameson is glad there is at least some space for “focusing on the good in the community.”

“We need to get together, we need to talk about it,” the mayor said. “We need to be happy, right?”

Jill Morse moved to Hay River when she was two weeks old in 1971. At the gathering, she observed: “Guardian angels come in all shapes and sizes.”

“You can guarantee this is a miracle, that our town was saved – we were surrounded by three forest fires, all closing in,” Morse said. 

“I believe the firefighters and emergency personnel and structural teams, along with the volunteers, all were guardian angels protecting our community.”

By Ollie Williams and Aastha Sethi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Oct 23, 2023 at 06:05

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