Flood response, COVID-19 restrictions top of mind for short N.W.T. legislative session

The N.W.T. legislature is back for a short, but busy session. CBC heard from some MLAs about their top priorities.

N.W.T. MLAS will assemble from May 27 to June 4

A view of the inside of the NWT's legislative assembly. Session starts up again for seven days so MLAs can pass small adjustments to departmental budgets. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Politicians are descending on Yellowknife this week for a short, but busy session of the legislative assembly, their first since passing the territorial budget in March. 

The assembly is being called back so MLAs can pass small, one-time adjustments to departmental budgets, a regular exercise in the political process.

They've got seven days, from May 27 to June 4, to do just that. 

But some MLAs are planning to use this time to interrogate the government on ongoing flood relief efforts in the Dehcho region, COVID-19 restrictions and the territory's persistent housing crisis. 

More detail on flood relief 

An aerial view of the flooding in Fort Simpson. (Christine Horesay)

This year's spring breakup, which displaced hundreds of residents in Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River, N.W.T., is already a focal point for the upcoming session. 

The N.W.T. Housing Corporation is conducting assessments in both communities this week to figure out what was damaged and what needs to be replaced. Residents in Fort Simpson are starting to return home, while most from Jean Marie River continue to live at a hotel in Fort Providence. 

Leadership, along with volunteers on the ground, criticized the territory's perceived slow response to the situation in both places, saying their priorities are elsewhere. 

In that spirit, MLAs probed Paulie Chinna, minister of municipal and community affairs, in a testy public session Tuesday night — a preview of what the upcoming session might sound like. 

"If I'm a person in Fort Simpson … and I have $100,000 in remediation to do, what should I do right now?," Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, asked the minister. "Throughout this whole presentation, [I] don't understand what people should be doing on the ground to get money." 

In a lengthy reply, Chinna said the territory is "trying to be strategic" in how residents could be reimbursed for the damages caused to their homes. 

MLA Kevin O'Reilly is expecting members will use their statements this week to get more answers from the GNWT about their flood response in the Dehcho. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Kevin O'Reilly, Frame Lake MLA, said he didn't get "the level of detail" he wanted from the minister, like how those affected will be able to access any financial support for the N.W.T.'s disaster assistance policy. 

"I'm going to hold her feet to the fire." - Kevin O'Reilly, Frame Lake MLA

O'Reilly is expecting members will use their statements and questions this week in the legislature to draw out more information. 

"I'm going to hold her feet to that fire," O'Reilly said, in reference to Chinna's promise to house those who are displaced before winter hits. 

Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, said she will try to rally support for a third party, independent review into the territory's flood response. 

"We started talking about ... high water levels in November," Nokleby said. "Where was the plan B?" 

The Dehcho flooding should also be an opportunity for the territory to discuss wider-ranging responses to climate change, O'Reilly continued, as more extreme weather-related events start to happen.

He will renew his call for the N.W.T. to adopt a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 — the same commitment Yukon made a few months ago. 

Future of COVID-19 restrictions unclear, MLAs say 

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, said there's many questions about the N.W.T.'s COVID-19 re-opening plan that have gone unanswered. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Life is getting back to normal in Yukon as of Tuesday, when the territory lifted most of their COVID-19 restrictions. 

Events up to 200 people can be planned, social bubbles with 20 or more people are allowed, and the 14-day self-isolation requirement is lifted for any Canadians who received both doses of a vaccine. 

These recent moves have MLAs wondering when the N.W.T. will do the same. 

"I get COVID-19 is a fast-moving situation … but I think there's been some very basic questions on a lot of fronts that have just never been answered," Johnson said. "My main goal this session is to just speed the government up." 

The N.W.T.'s Emerging Wisely plan was released in May 2020. A month later, the territory moved into phase two, meaning some restrictions on outdoor gatherings were relaxed and many businesses were able to reopen.

Nearly a year later, the N.W.T. is still in this phase.

In fact, the territorial government has made only minor changes to their COVID-19 policies since the beginning of the pandemic, like shortening the self-isolation requirements for fully vaccinated residents who test negative on their eighth day

Johnson said there are some easy things the territory could do, like letting restaurants open to full capacity. That move would help the struggling industry stay afloat during what could be a second summer with no outside tourism. 

Darren Campbell, a spokesperson for the territory's health department, said no moves to phase three are planned in the next week or so, as the territory is still recovering from a cluster of cases in Yellowknife.

In June, the department will release a new plan that deals with the relaxation of public health measures.

Both Johnson and O'Reilly are hoping the territory will release their long-awaited economic recovery plan.

"We need to turn our minds to the next steps for us, and how this is going to play out across the economy," O'Reilly said.

Housing report coming soon

Paulie Chinna, minister of municipal and community affairs, told CBC in April that the cost of fixing the NWT's housing crisis has nearly doubled during the pandemic due to rising construction costs. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

The N.W.T. government will face more questions from MLAs about the ongoing housing crisis. 

In April, Chinna, also the territory's housing minister, told CBC the cost to solve the territory's housing crisis doubled from $300 million pre-pandemic to almost $600 million this year due to sky-rocketing construction costs. 

The territory got into hot water for waiting two years to spend a dedicated $60 million from Ottawa. Eventually, they decided to split the money, with $34.5 million going straight to Indigenous governments for 66 affordable homes, and $25.5 million to the N.W.T. Housing Corporation, to build 60 more units in 16 communities.

They were criticized for this plan, with many asking who qualifies to live in these new units. 

Ottawa set aside an additional $25 million for N.W.T. housing in this year's federal budget, which will be used to build another 30 public housing units in the territory. 

It seems like a broken record, a lot of the things that were identified 20 years ago are the same issues we have now.- Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave

Now, MLAs will push to find the best ways to use this money and alleviate some of the pressure on the N.W.T.'s housing stock.

Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, said a report is coming soon that will bring forward some creative solutions to the territory's housing crisis. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"It seems like a broken record," said Nokleby. "A lot of the things that were identified 20 years ago are the same issues we have now."

Nokleby and Johnson said a substantive report with suggestions and solutions to the N.W.T.'s housing crisis is expected sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The report will analyze barriers to private home ownership, and evaluate public housing programs. Both couldn't elaborate on the report until it's tabled in the legislature.