As flooding threatens N.W.T. again, minister says updates coming to disaster assistance policy

After Muaz Hassan’s store in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. was damaged by floods, he had to navigate the territory’s Disaster Assistance Policy, something he didn’t mince words when describing. 

Some impacted by floods criticize current policy, limit on financial reimbursement limit

Muaz Hassan is the owner of the Unity Store in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. He said flooding left upwards of $400,000 worth of damage of which he could only receive a maximum amount of $100,000 in compensation. (Jonathon Antoine/ CBC)

After Mauz Hassan's store in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., was damaged by flooding, he had to navigate the territory's Disaster Assistance Policy.

"That is a bad, a bad policy," said Hassan, the owner of the Unity Store and a village councillor.

However, Shane Thompson, the territorial minister of municipal and community affairs (MACA), told CBC News on Wednesday the policy will be updated, although no timeline was provided. 

"That hasn't been updated for a long time," Thompson said. "We feel that the Disaster Assistance Policy is being developed and improved." 

The Disaster Assistance Policy serves as a reimbursement option for residents, small businesses or community governments for losses caused by a disaster. It is based on an agreement with the federal government, similar to other provinces and territories.

In 2021, historic flooding hit Jean Marie River First Nation and Fort Simpson, forcing numerous residents to rely on the policy — many of whom said it didn't cover enough financially and could be complicated to navigate. 

In April, the territorial government held a survey to collect feedback on the policy.

Thompson said the department has been looking at how other jurisdictions approach disaster recovery.

Thompson said he couldn't give specifics on what the updates would be, as it is now in an internal process, but that it would involve funding.

"It's about the funding, how it's being implemented, how we implement things. You know, some of the challenges that we heard during the flood recovery last year. So, again, we're taking all of the feedback that we received and trying to adapt it," he said. 

Funding amounts were a big issue for Hassan, who has been in floods and war zones in Africa, but said he found the N.W.T's response disappointing.

"We are not in a war zone here," he said. 

This image from May 2021 shows Fort Simpson, N.W.T., shortly after flood waters receded. Numerous homes were damaged in the flooding, several of which are still in the process of being repaired. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

He said his store dealt with around $400,000 to $500,000 worth of damage from flooding but the policy only covers up to $100,000. 

"The Northwest Territories is known as one of the most expensive lands in Canada," he said. 

This is something Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said he also took issue with. He advised other communities at risk of flooding this year to prepare and move as much out of potential flood zones as possible to avoid needing to rely on reimbursement. 

On Saturday morning, areas of Hay River, N.W.T., were evacuated as waters rose and some parts began to flood. 

A slow process

Along with the limits, many of the people who relied on the Disaster Assistance Policy said it was complicated and slow. 

"They should have responded a lot faster instead of all this red tape," said Clinton Betthale, a Fort Simpson resident whose home was damaged in last years flooding. 

"Like they said, 'oh, you got to fill out this that have to go through approval,' like, come on."

He said they did get some financial assistance from MACA, but not everything was reimbursed. 

"All our hunting gear, winter gear… his tools," were not able to be replaced, said Betthale's partner Phoebe Punch.

"Yeah we did get help from the government but not all the help that we needed."

The policy has several items that are excluded from coverage, including things damaged or lost, which could have been "covered by insurance which was readily available at reasonable cost," as well as costs that are recoverable through legal action or other government programs.

For Hassan last year was a difficult time for the community, but he said they emerged from it wiser. 

As breakup is imminent for the Liard and Mackenzie River, he said he hopes there is no flooding this year, but if so he will be prepared.