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Notes from the Trail: A transparent, independent and inclusive wildfire inquiry is needed

Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned with social justice.

MLAs are scheduled to vote on Feb. 22 to decide whether to go ahead with a public inquiry into the wildfires that rocked the North last summer or continue with reviews being done by Municipal and Community Affairs and the Department of Environment and Climate Change.

This even though Dene governments and many people in the North have demanded an open, transparent public review. The fact is public trust in the government was broken with its response to the fires and the handling of the evacuation. R.J. Simpson and his cabinet do not seem to understand this and are not listening.

Considering that residents of Enterprise watched fire trucks race past one Sunday morning last August then watched their community burn to the ground in the afternoon, it’s no wonder public trust is gone. People in Yellowknife were given less than two days to run and with such short notice, many fled in unsafe conditions with fires burning around them, in darkness, bumper to bumper and some in unsafe vehicles.

With their kids, they slept in their cars and maxed out credit cars doing what the government told them to do – go now even though we had been told just a few days earlier that we were OK.

Under the haphazard orders, the handicapped, Elderly and vulnerable stood in lines for hours waiting to book flights and some of our vulnerable population wound up on the streets of major centres, where they died.

We have not forgotten that many government workers had advance notice that an evacuation was imminent and left before us.

No wonder our confidence in the government is gone. No wonder we are cynical about the sincerity and commitment of the GNWT.

This is not to suggest that all government workers and even some already working on the study will not do their best. We know they will and that they are good people. But our trust and confidence went up in flames last summer too. Simpson and the other MLAs voting against a public review are doing little to heal those wounds and restore public trust.

Many have not recovered financially from the evacuation expenses incurred while others still have no homes. Some businesses closed for good. Other NWT residents are dispersed, in and outside of the territory and others may not be able to return – ever.

Still others live surrounded by the burned-out remains of what used to be their safe place that was their home. Every day in Fort Smith, in Enterprise, and in Hay River, people are reminded of the terror that characterized the summer of 2023.

It is surprising then that Simpson and his colleagues are not being more empathetic toward our concerns but seem to be strengthening the long arm of the government, which people all over the North have said they do not want.

Why isn’t the new government listening?

The ask from the public is for a transparent, independent and inclusive inquiry where we can be heard, and give voice to our trauma and we want it done before the next fire season begins. This is what we are owed and it is what we voted for.

The people of the NWT want an independent and transparent inquiry where their voices can be heard. Simpson suggests it would have runaway costs and will usurp other business that needs to be done. He says it could take on a life of its own.

Not true. Surely, they have more clout than that and can set workable parameters.

This time, the government needs to show the people of the NWT that it’s listening and it’s here for them. The government failed us during the evacuation… we need our newly-elected officials to help us get past that. That is their job.

Hold a public inquiry.

—Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned with social justice.