Skip to content

BREAKING: MLAs vote 10-6 for wildfire inquiry

Range Lake MLA Kieron Testart said the NWT wildfires have created trust issues between the public and the territorial government. Screenshot courtesy GNWT

MLAs have voted 10 to six in favour of holding a public inquiry into the 2023 wildfires following a Feb. 22 debate in the legislative assembly.

All regular MLAs who were present voted in favour while cabinet voted against the motion, which was originally put forward Feb. 9 by Range Lake MLA Kieron Testart and seconded by Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya, whose riding includes the hamlet of Enterprise, which was heavily damaged by a wildfire.

Inuvik-Boot Lake MLA Denny Rodgers and Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek were absent from the House. Speak of the house Shane Thompson did not cast a vote. The decision now goes back to cabinet to follow or ignore the motion.

Under the Public Inquiries Act, the commissioner of the NWT would oversee the inquiry, while cabinet would appoint two members to the commission and two regular MLAs would be appointed. Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon-Armstrong introduced two amendments to allow the council of leaders, comprised of Indigenous governments, to appoint two additional members to the commission. In support of the motion, Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins said the goal of regular members was to make the process as inclusive as possible. He added he felt the people of the NWT deserved an apology for “what they went through.”

Frame Lake MLA Julian Morse then made a motion to reduce the number of appointments from six members to three, permitting the standing committee, cabinet and council of Elders to make one appointment each. Yakeleya added a motion for a report to be tabled upon completion. Great Slave MLA Kate Reid introduced a motion that “establish a safe disclosure opportunities for people to share information.”

The amending motions all passed with support of all regular members. Cabinet abstained from voting on motions introduced to modify the original motion. The vote on the inquiry followed a lively debate in the assembly, where regular MLAs criticized the evacuation in its entirety.

“Restore public trust”

At the start of the debate, Testart said the GNWT needed the public inquiry to restore public trust.

“I have heard the argument that this public inquiry will result in too much blame and criticism without offering much insight to the government, to the public or to this assembly,” he said. “To that I say this perspective is a gross underestimation of the contribution the public has to offer and the independence a public inquiry can offer. The people of the Northwest Territories lived through the crisis, many work to support their family, friends and neighbours to get through it. Their knowledge is crucial if we want to move forward and prepare for the future, and their trust is key, if we want to work together through the next crisis.

“Nobody knew if there was a plan to evacuate, especially if fires closed down the highway or heavy smoke prevented flights from taking off. In addition, the capital city is the most important supply hub for the Northwest Territories. Other communities fear that they would not get their groceries they need to feed their communities, fuel and other essential supplies. There is trust concerns in the Northwest Territories. There are people who feel they cannot speak to their MLAs sometimes without full anonymity.”

He added a commission would be transparent, while saying the engagement process underway by Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) and the contracted out review by Environment and Climate Change would have the “government’s hands on it.”

Premier R.J. Simpson cautioned members not to frame the situation as a “good versus evil” debate.

He said the GNWT’s Public Inquires Act is decades old and would not give the public the results it would want. Among the limitations he listed were an inability in the act for the GNWT to set a budget or limit how long the inquiry could be in progress.

“With a public inquiry, I expect a number of lawyers to be buying second and third homes,” he said. “What happens when the public inquiry runs out of money and they haven’t made their way out of Yellowknife yet to look at Behchoko or the South Slave? Do we just say well, that’s it? No, we keep pumping money into it.”

Noting a public inquiry is similar to a court trial, Simpson said the conflict of interest inquiry into former MLA Steve Norn cost $800,000 and didn’t heal anything.

He added that a public inquiry on television would prevent people testifying from being anonymous.

“You’re a witness,” said Simpson. “Potentially you’ll be cross-examined or examined and then cross-examined. I’ve heard that some of them want to make comments anonymously. You can’t do that in a public inquiry either. There’s a limited set of circumstances where information or your identity can be kept confidential but if we’re talking about many people who want this because they’re afraid their boss will get mad at them or they think that in the future they may not get a contract — at some point that’s no longer public inquiry and everyone is anonymous for reasons like that. Nothing is admissible in a public inquiry that’s not admissible in court. So hearsay, anonymous unsigned submissions, those things don’t apply in a public inquiry.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jay Macdonald praised first responders and public servants for their dedication during the wildfire evacuations.

He said public safety officers were making the best decisions they were able to with the information they had available.

“You can look back and say, ‘Oh, I should have done this or I should have done that,’ and hindsight is 20/20 all the time,” he said. “But when you’re sitting there making that decision, you are doing the best for the community or the person or the territory based on the information you have.

“The wildland firefighting community in Canada is a very small one. In 2023 we lost seven firefighters and one of our own here in the Northwest Territories. Adam Yeadon was killed by a falling tree while protecting his community.”

Saying an inquiry was punitive in nature and would be looking for someone to blame, Macdonald said an after-action review would have more productive results.

Noting he was fighting both wildfires and the flooding in Hay River, MACA Minister Vince McKay said he started the department’s investigation as soon as he was named to the portfolio.

He noted the last inquiry in Yellowknife cost nearly $1 million. He said the public needed to understand the difference between an independent review and a public inquiry.

“Am I comfortable with a third-party independent review coming up with probably the same recommendations and same views as an inquiry? Yes, I am,” he said. “One of the big things that I have concerns about with the inquiry and the first thing that came to my mind when when we started talking about it is it immediately goes to lawyers, for lack of better terms, and away they go.

“Personally, in my years of experience in emergency services, I would rather see somebody who is qualified and knowledgeable in the emergency to start asking these questions independently — the same type of process that was done for Fort McMurray, same process that was done for for Slave Lake. I think those are things that would benefit the questions we have and the answers that we could get.”

McKay added that while residents in Yellowknife have been able to go home, Hay River is still rebuilding. He said an inquiry would pull funds away from the rebuilding process.

“We could have had a lot of fatalities.”

Reid said the people deserve to find out why the GNWT made the decisions that it did, but said the inquiry would need a strong terms of reference.

“An independent review of staff actions may tell part of the story, but a more important story lies on finding out what those staff were told to do in the first place,” she said. “Unfortunately, right after the deferral two weeks ago, the premier told the media that a public inquiry is not the way to go…

“It’s kind of depressing that the government needs to be convinced to do the right thing, and ultimately it feels likely they won’t even now. Trust is not something that is found or restored. It has to be earned every day.”

Saying she has heard from Indigenous governments that they support a public inquiry, Weyallon-Armstrong noted that not only were four million hectares of land lost to the wildfires, but also many “animal babies were burned.”

”People want to be heard,” she said. “They want to know what happened. We cannot forget, we cannot repeat.

“None of the Indigenous governments were consulted They were not consulted, the GNWT had a lack of emergency coordination with the Indigenous governments. Twenty-eight communities were abandoned. The sad part, I just live down the road from here, 104 kilometers. The premier of the day drove by my community, did not even stop to talk to the leaders or to myself to see how the people are doing. Nothing like that. No communication.

“We have airstrips in my community. No plane was left behind for us to use for people to use.”

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon lamented the closing of forestry lookout towers. He noted that he was unable to communicate with his family for five days.

He criticized the “let it burn” policy and suggested it was because the government didn’t want to pay firefighters overtime. He added that many Indigenous governments were on the hook for supporting their members while evacuated, but could only get $45,000 from MACA.

“That same fire came close to Behchoko, nearly wiping out that whole community,” he said. “That same fire also came to Yellowknife. How can we get to this? It should never ever come to that.

“A lot of people were displaced when the GNWT pulled the trigger to evacuate. We had Elders who didn’t know what was going on. I had to help three Elders. I had to go find three wheelchairs. I won’t tell you where I got them from.

”I was told that this government was totally disorganized. It could have been worse.

“We could have had a lot of fatalities.”

Chaotic fallout

Mackenzie Delta MLA George Nerysoo said even some of his constituents were displaced by the wildfire evacuation and the effective shut down of government that resulted.

“There was an elderly couple that came to Yellowknife during that evacuation process,” he said. “While they were in Yellowknife for medical they get an order that they’re being medevaced. The family members from Aklavik could not find them. They had no idea where they were they were, searching, trying to follow them and in the meantime, they were in Calgary.

“The region was completely shut down because the government was shut down. They had people that are supposed to go on medical travel, people supposed to go on other appointments, but due to the government being shut down, these individuals were not able to keep their appointments.”

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan suggested a third path by appointing an independent panel. She said by passing a motion to demand a public inquiry, it could press cabinet to appoint an independent review team.

She used the 2017 B.C. wildfires as an example, noting the report produced 108 recommendations and compelled the B.C. government to respond. MACA should be left out of the review, she contended, because people would be nervous about testifying against their bosses.

“I’ve heard from some in leadership positions that a MACA after-action review is sufficient because sure there were some missteps but the evacuations were a success because no one died, at least not before they left the NWT,” she said. “Sure there was a little bit of confusion but we just need to iron out the details and carry on. I think this perspective is profoundly disconnected from how most of us experienced last summer’s emergencies.

“Honestly, this narrative usually slips into the realm of platitudes and excuses like everyone did their best. It was unprecedented. No one could have ever predicted Yellowknife would have to evacuate and we couldn’t control what Alberta did. These may have some truth behind them, but this kind of narrative doesn’t sound like it’s leading us towards a serious reckoning with the oversights and failures and challenges,” said Morgan.

“It’s basically telling us, not much different could have been done. So it tells us, not much different will be done in the future.”

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon said there was no communication and people received little to no support during last summer’s wildfire evacuation. Screenshot courtesy GNWT
Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya seconded Testart’s motion for a public inquiry. Screenshot courtesy GNWT