Skip to content

Premier opposes public inquiry into wildfires due to costs and timeline

“If we have our own review, we can recover those costs from federal recovery funding. Under a public inquiry, we wouldn’t be able to get that money refunded,” says Premier R.J. Simpson. Screenshot courtesy of the GNWT

It’s going to take a little longer for the legislative assembly to debate whether to have a public inquiry into the 2023 wildfire season, but the premier has made his opposition known.

Range Lake MLA Kieron Testart introduced a motion which, if passed, would have asked the commissioner of the NWT, Margaret Thom, to strike a committee under the Public Inquiries Act. The motion asked for the commissioner to appoint four people to the board along with two people recommended by cabinet and two others recommended by the assembly’s Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight.

Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya seconded the motion.

But Testart’s motion was countered by one from Premier R.J. Simpson, who wanted debate on Testart’s motion delayed until Feb. 22. Deputy Premier Caroline Wawzonek seconded Simpson’s motion.

Simpson’s motion ended up passing thanks to Speaker Shane Thompson breaking a 9-9 tie — Testart requested a recorded vote on the motion. All seven members of cabinet, along with Frame Lake MLA Julian Morse and Great Slave MLA Kate Reid, voted in favour of it, while all other regular MLAs voted against it.

So why did Simpson want to delay debate on Testart’s motion? He told NNSL Media on Friday afternoon that more time is needed to talk about it.

Also, he doesn’t think it’s the way to go.

“I’m of the opinion that it’s not the best way to do it,” he said. “It’s not the most inclusive way and we would have no control over both costs and timing.”

It was announced earlier this week in the House that two departments would be doing their own dive into the decisions made around the wildfires last summer.

Environment and Climate Change (ECC) Minister Jay Macdonald said an independent review of the GNWT’s emergency preparedness has been underway since November.

“A team of wildfire and program assessment experts will review several aspects of the 2023 season, including wildfire management decisions and operations in the field, as well as Environment and Climate Change’s wildfire program structure, budget and administrative systems,” Macdonald told the House on Feb. 7.

McDonald said that report will be ready by next month and will be made public.

On the same day, Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) Minister Vince McKay said the GNWT would be holding public forums in communities affected by wildfires to hear from residents about what did and didn’t work.

McKay also committed to a “comprehensive and independent after-action review.”

“This will be the largest after-action review ever undertaken by this government, and I want residents to know that this is a priority for this government,” he said. “We already know that it will highlight gaps in last year’s emergency response, but it will also inform how we collectively prepare for, manage and recover from emergencies in the future.”

“The ECC review is the more technical one and it’s being done by a third-party contractor, and the MACA one is still finalizing the terms of reference,” said Simpson. “This way may take a bit longer, but we want things to be done properly so we can see what needs to be done and make sure we have things in place. In my opinion, this will be better than having a public inquiry.”

When it comes to cost, Simpson said a public inquiry wouldn’t make financial sense.

“If we have our own review, we can recover those costs from federal recovery funding,” he said. “Under a public inquiry, we wouldn’t be able to get that money refunded.”

The City of Yellowknife announced late Tuesday afternoon that its after-action review was set to begin with accounting firm KPMG contracted to perform the research and write the report.

Simpson indicated that the city’s report could make up part of a larger review that would see other organizations — communities and Indigenous governments — included.