The premier of the Northwest Territories, touring an evacuation centre for fellow northerners Friday, said she’s angry the wildfire-ravaged region doesn’t have the same services as the South and called on Canadians to pressure Ottawa to act.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said she’s spent years calling for the federal government to help the territory develop roads and communication technologies needed to keep people safe as the territory sees more fires and other climate change impacts.
“I’m tired. I’ve been tired for a long time for asking for infrastructure,” Cochrane said.
“And now I’m angry.”
Cochrane joined Alberta Premier Danielle Smith to tour a Calgary reception centre for wildfire evacuees Friday.
Tens of thousands have been forced from the territory, with more than 21,500 people seeking refuge in Alberta. Others have gone to British Columbia and Manitoba to wait out the blazes.
Cochrane said communication services went down in the territory as authorities were trying to get people out. She said she couldn’t get in touch with people to know if they were safe or needed help to leave.
Some communities only have one road for access and she described people driving with flames on both sides of them. Twenty-two communities have no permanent roads and planes can’t land if there’s too much smoke, she said.
“Whose fault is it when we can’t get people out because we don’t have basic infrastructure that every Canadian takes for granted?” Cochrane said.
“It is not OK that the territories live like Third-World countries.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Friday whether federal authorities had failed the territories because of infrastructure gaps. He said it was “part of the reflections” that would take place on the fires and their response.
“Within two days, they’d evacuated close to 20,000 people in a very effective way and that’s, as you say, not a credit to great infrastructure,” Trudeau said at a firehall in the Okanagan in the British Columbia Interior, another area hit hard by wildfires in recent weeks.
Trudeau noted that the fire had not reached Yellowknife and said “next time we might not be so lucky.”
“We’re going to need to learn from these near-misses.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said earlier this week that the federal government must assure communities that they won’t be on their own to rebuild and that support is on the way.
In an update Thursday night, the territorial government said a fire outside the territorial capital was unlikely to reach Yellowknife in the next 72 hours. Officials said there were no significant advances and the fire remained about 15 kilometres outside city limits.
The Northwest Territories legislature is set to reconvene for one day Monday to deal with the fallout from the fire, including getting financial aid to residents.
Meanwhile, Cochrane said she is eternally grateful for the kindness and support shown by Albertans.
“l shall never forget the kindness and support of Albertans,” Cochrane said. “You have truly shown what it means to care for people.”
Smith also thanked Albertans for opening their homes, businesses and hearts. She said Alberta’s health-care system took in four acute-care patients, 55 continuing-care patients, 30 obstetrics patients and 19 dialysis patients.
Alberta has also temporarily taken in 85 inmates from the territory.
Several evacuees who are staying in Calgary stopped by the hotel housing the reception centre to talk to Cochrane.
Don Asher, who lives in Yellowknife, said he asked her about security at his home. She told him that the RCMP was on patrol, but he said that’s not enough.
“I don’t know what’s going on up there,” he said, noting he’s heard that there have been break-ins since the city was evacuated.
Asher said he plans to return in the coming days to protect his home on the west side of the city.
“They can put me in jail, I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve got too much valuable stuff up there.”
Cochrane, however, again asked people not to return to N.W.T. if they are not an essential worker.
“Every single fire that we’ve had, there’s always been people who have stayed behind protecting their homes, protecting their communities,” said Cochrane.
“They are not only putting themselves at risk, but they are putting our firefighters at risk.”
The Alberta Emergency Management Agency is also preparing in case people fleeing fires in British Columbia need somewhere to go, but Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said it’s not required yet.
Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023.
— with files from Dirk Meissner in West Kelowna, B.C., and Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon.