N.W.T. MLAs voted Thursday to hold a public inquiry into the territory’s 2023 wildfire response, but Premier R.J. Simpson says his government isn’t making any promises.

MLAs who were present voted 10-6 in favour of the inquiry, with all regular MLAs in favour and all cabinet ministers voting against it.

Following the vote, Simpson told CBC he doesn’t believe it’s the right time for a public inquiry, with another wildfire season approaching.

He said his government would instead proceed with two after-action reviews that are currently underway for the departments of Environment and Climate Change as well as Municipal and Community Affairs.

The government has contracted those reviews out, and has described them as “independent.”

Simpson said the government would hear from the public through that process, before deciding whether to proceed with a public inquiry.

Inquiry needed to restore trust, say  MLAs

Kieron Testart, MLA for Range Lake, brought Thursday’s motion forward along with Dehcho MLA Sheryl Yakeleya.

Testart was the first MLA to speak to the issue Thursday, saying the inquiry is needed to restore public trust. 

He said during the evacuation, two-thirds of the population was displaced as climate refugees and the community of Enterprise was burned nearly to the ground. 

“If this isn’t grounds for a public inquiry, I don’t know what is,” he said. 

He also argued reviews being completed by third-party contractors for two territorial departments would not be transparent.

“The work of a commission would be,” he said. 

Burned forest on a sunny day. Smoke rises from the ground.
Fire was still burning near Enterprise on Oct. 11. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

While Simpson has said the inquiry would be too costly and cumbersome, Testart argued the assembly could confine the scope, costs and timelines of the inquiry.

“The prevents this from spiraling out of control,” he said. “We can make the right calls on how it’s shaped.” 

Kate Reid, MLA for Great Slave, said the public deserves to learn why the government made the decisions that it did. 

The motion was first planned to be debated on Feb. 9 but was postponed to Feb. 22. Reid was one of two regular MLAs voting with cabinet to defer the motion. 

She said she voted for that deferral to collaborate with her colleagues, but was disappointed by the premier telling 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 that right thing,” she said.

The motion was amended Thursday to have an independent board of three people, instead of the motion’s initial four, in order to reduce the cost, and to call for the N.W.T. Council of Leaders to appoint two of those board members. That council is comprised of Indigenous leaders and territorial government leaders.

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong said having Indigenous participation in the review is crucial. 

She said Indigenous governments were not consulted in decisions about the summer’s evacuations. 

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

Richard Edjericon, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, similarly spoke to the importance of including Indigenous governments. He said there was no communication and that it’s lucky there were no fatalities. 

Edjericon criticized the premier’s comments about the inquiry costing too much and requiring hundreds or thousands of interviews.

“When I hear that kind of stuff, it’s like you’re trying to hide the truth from the people,” he said.

A non-binding vote

The motion on whether to call a public inquiry is non-binding and essentially a recommendation to government.

Though Edjericon said he supports the motion, he added he doesn’t trust the government will necessarily hold the inquiry.

“Even though we pass this motion today, there’s no guarantee cabinet is going ahead to do this work,” he said.

Man in suit stands
Frame Lake MLA Julian Morse said the majority of the constituents he’s heard from are in favour of a public inquiry, but that they will need to constrain costs and scope to address concerns that the inquiry could get out of hand. (Natalie Pressman/CBC)

Julian Morse, MLA for Frame Lake, is one of the members who had voted in favour of postponing the motion to Thursday and said that extra time resulted in more engagement with constituents. 

He said the majority of those constituents are in favour of public inquiry.

Morse said residents have emphasized that their desire for public inquiry is not out of anger but out of a desire to learn and do better for future evacuations. 

He also echoed his colleagues that they would need to constrain cost, scope and timeline of the inquiry.

Jay Macdonald, minister of Environment and Climate Change — one of the departments undergoing a contracted review — said the public should participate in those reviews instead. 

He said that would allow residents to share their perspectives in the process the government is already undertaking.

After that, he said, the territory could look at the results and, if people are not satisfied, they could resume discussion about a public inquiry.

During Thursday’s discussion, the premier said the N.W.T.’s legislation does not allow for a budget, or for caps on how many can testify and how long they can participate for.

“These almost always cost more and take longer than anyone expects,” Simpson said. 

He said he knows people want to be heard and need to heal. 

“A public inquiry is not a place to heal — it’s like a courtroom,” he said. 

Simpson pointed to the last inquiry the N.W.T. had, which looked into former MLA Steve Norn breaking COVID requirements and misleading the public about it. 

“I don’t know one person who felt like that went well,” he said.

After that inquiry, the territory changed its legislation to avoid future costly inquiries

People need assurances that what went wrong is going to be fixed and Simpson said that’s what is going to be achieved in the current reviews being contracted out to a third party. 

If people are not satisfied with the results of those, then a public inquiry could be revisited, Simpson said. He said that would provide enough time to amend the legislation.

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