It’s no secret that government rules are sometimes mysterious.

But they occasionally transcend the mysterious and move into the realm of the completely unexplainable.

Some even enter the rarefied air of being a Catch-22, and that is quite a feat even for a government.

Such was the case recently when the GNWT denied the Town of Hay River’s request for disaster assistance to help pay for fighting a landfill fire that went on for almost all of March 2019.

The reasoning that the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) offered in rejecting financial help can be basically summed up as there wasn’t a disaster.

And why wasn’t there a disaster, you might wonder. Well, the actions of the Town of Hay River prevented the dump fire from becoming a disaster.

Enter Catch-22.

Perhaps most people have heard the term Catch-22, but a little refresher might be in order. It comes from the novel Catch-22 in which any air force pilot seeking to avoid combat can request to be evaluated for insanity. However, that request is taken as an indication the pilot is not insane.

Since the Joseph Heller novel was published in 1961, Catch-22 has become part of the language as a way to describe paradoxical situations of contradictions and often bizarre rules.

Enter the Hay River landfill fire.

The town spent roughly $1 million to fight the blaze, but only received about $100,000 from insurance for direct firefighting efforts. The other $900,000 largely went for environmental testing, particularly water testing required by regulatory agencies to ensure that no contaminants were escaping the landfill because of the fire.

MACA determined that the dump fire did not fit the criteria for its disaster assistance policy because there was no widespread damage affecting a significant number of people’s properties, and the health, safety and welfare of residents were not at risk.

So, the GNWT will only offer financial compensation to a municipality if it does not stop a disaster from happening. If it takes all the responsible actions to prevent a looming disaster, the community is on its own.

What is a cash-strapped municipality to make of that?

Well, Hay River could have perhaps let the fire burn the tons of tires at the dump, since a cloud of thick black smoke descending on the town would certainly look like a disaster.

Or maybe the town could have flirted with disaster by being less vigilant in testing water.

MACA’s decision raises a curious question. Should a municipality faced with a disaster let a little bit of that disaster actually happen just so it can be financially compensated?

For example, if a forest fire is approaching the outskirts of a town, should a few old buildings be allowed to burn so GNWT disaster assistance might be available? It might be – bizarrely – the fiscally-wise decision.

However, it would seem fair that a municipality that takes quick and effective actions to prevent a looming disaster should be supported.

Instead, in fine Catch-22 fashion, the GNWT will not compensate municipalities that have paid the price to stop a disaster in the making, but will only support communities where a disaster has happened.

That makes no sense.

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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