The N.W.T.’s regular MLAs said Friday that they’re disappointed by cabinet voting against a motion to call a public inquiry into last year’s wildfire response — and one MLA questioned the premier’s intention to collaborate. 

Members of the Legislative Assembly voted 10-6 on Thursday in favour of a public inquiry, with all present regular members voting for the inquiry and all present cabinet ministers voting against it.

In a news release on Friday, regular MLAs said they’re disappointed that cabinet did not support a public inquiry but that they would be meeting with the premier to work together on next steps. 

“The public needs to understand what the government is looking at and feel comfortable in providing their feedback during that process,” the news release states.

After Thursday’s vote, Premier R.J. Simpson told CBC he would consider the public inquiry only after two contracted reviews his government is doing are complete. Those reviews will be done for the departments of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) and Environment and Climate Change (ECC). 

Frame Lake MLA Julian Morse responded to the premier’s comments during Friday’s sitting. 

“Is it the premier and cabinet’s intent to simply ignore calls for collaboration and suggestions made by myself and my colleagues?” Morse asked.

Simpson responded by saying that is not his intention, but that he has to “look into things.”

“I have a responsibility, when the House brings forward a motion and recommendations, to carefully consider those. I also have a responsibility to ensure that we are operating the government in a responsible manner,” Simpson said.

The premier told CBC News that the coming summer, potentially another busy fire season, is not the time to hold a public inquiry.

“It would require people to be taken off of fighting fires or providing emergency response to testify, and I don’t think that is prudent of us to do that,” he said.

Simpson said there would be lots of opportunity for residents to share their input on the 2023 wildfires, and that he knows people want to be heard. 

Review after 2014 wildfires

Simpson has said that a public inquiry would be costly and cumbersome, and that the reviews being done for MACA and ECC would yield a similar outcome.

But Kieron Testart, MLA for Range Lake, said he doesn’t see how that could be possible.

“If what we’re proposing on this side of the House is going to be too expensive for this government to bear, but they can do it for a reasonable cost that’s going to get the same level of results — I just don’t see how that works out,” he said during Thursday’s sitting. 

A helicopter flies a bucket of water over flames.
Helicopters drop buckets of water on a flare-up along Highway 3 near Yellowknife last August. (NWT Fire/Facebook)

After the 2014 wildfire season — at that point, the territory’s most severe on record — MACA also commissioned a review to learn from what happened. 

Sixty interviews were conducted for that review and 68 people responded to a written survey — 53 of those survey responses were from Yellowknife — and the majority of respondents seem to praise the territory’s response. 

“I believe the entire team needs to be commended for fighting the fire and avoiding the loss of life,” said one respondent quoted in the review report.

“The situation started out chaotic, but over the summer it became more apparent that agencies and communities were coordinating. The direction improved and I had increasing comfort officials had a handle on things,” said another. 

Respondents also almost all agreed that the territory was effective in notifying communities of the wildfire risk, that there was good information sharing between the territory and communities, and that territorial and municipal governments were effective in supporting displaced evacuees. 

That review cost about $74,000. 

Testart said that the government hasn’t disclosed the costs of the MACA and ECC reviews to be done this year. 

“What we haven’t heard is, what is the budget for this process? What is the right amount of money to spend on this?” Testart said.

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