By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane visited Yellowknife fire evacuees in Edmonton on Aug. 30, accompanied by municipal, provincial and federal government representatives.
Joining Cochrane at Edmonton’s EXPO Centre were Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, provincial Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen, federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Official Languages Randy Boissonnault and federal Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, who took questions from reporters.
“I want to go home, we all want to go home,” Cochrane said, thanking the feds for deploying the military to assist the evacuation, the province for sending firefighters and hosting people across the province and the City of Edmonton for sheltering evacuees “in this beautiful building.”
“Some things we can control as government, but we can’t control the fire … We can’t control the wind and temperatures,” she added.
Cochrane cautioned that once the fires are under control it will take another four or five days for evacuees to be able to return while the territorial government ensures the power, sewers airports, hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations are able to function properly.
The N.W.T. government is offering a $750 stipend for those who evacuated by car.
It’s not just Yellowknife that was impacted by the fires. Enterprise, a hamlet of about 100 people, was 80 per cent destroyed. It’s not simply a matter of permanently relocating Enterprise’s residents elsewhere once the fires subside, Cochrane noted, because the hamlet is a “main transportation stop” for people looking to fill up on gas on their way to Yellowknife and smaller northern communities.
“There will have to be a real focus on rebuilding that community,” she said.
Responding to reports from the N.W.T. RCMP that there are coordinated efforts by some Yellowknife residents to make an unauthorized return home, Cochrane emphasized that this behaviour hinders first responders’ ability to fight the fire, because they have to focus their efforts on saving those who have prematurely returned.
“I know you’re tired, but please stay out until it’s safe to go home,” she said.
The N.W.T. premier added that school will start as usual for communities that aren’t evacuated and accommodations will be made for those who have been evacuated once they return. She didn’t commit, however, to having kids enroll with Edmonton schools in the meantime.
Minister Vandal called the fires a “very, very horrific incident,” but said many of the evacuees he spoke to “appeared to be in good spirits.”
He said the collaboration between different levels of government “shows a great solidarity of Canadians being there for one another.”
Mayor Sohi noted that “35 per cent of the Yellowknife population is currently living in Edmonton.”
He said that the city is working with the Red Cross to track the availability of hotels for evacuees, which the city recently announced were at capacity.
According to the 2021 Canadian census, 24 per cent of Yellowknife’s population is Indigenous.
Minister Boissonnault, who represents Edmonton Centre as an MP, said the government is fast tracking Employment Insurance applications for evacuees who are unable to work remotely.
“I want everybody to understand that as soon as somebody applies for EI, and puts in their N.W.T. postal code, it gets put into a special track. We have a team of federal public servants that are working to really speed up that application process,” said Boissonnault.
He said benefits should reach N.W.T. EI recipients within 12 to 18 days.