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MLAs in N.W.T. postpone upcoming election, add $75M to wildfire budget

N.W.T. MLAs have voted to postpone the upcoming territorial election by six weeks, to Nov. 14.

The general election was originally scheduled for Oct. 3 — just over five weeks from now — but MLAs decided that was unrealistic as the territory continues to deal with major wildfires and ongoing evacuations.

“It’s not going to be possible for us to hold fair elections,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, at an emergency sitting of the legislative assembly on Monday.

“I think this is probably the least intrusive way we can do this.”

The territory’s chief electoral officer had recommended the election be delayed to mid-November with the ongoing wildfire crisis. 

Stephen Dunbar, the CEO of Elections NWT, has said that the logistics and labour needed to put on an election mean a campaign just couldn’t go ahead safely in much of the territory. The campaign had been set to officially begin a week from now, on Sept. 4.

O’Reilly also acknowledged that even a postponed election campaign could be affected by wildfires this fall.

“So I am concerned that there may indeed still be some communities that are under an evacuation order still, into October,” he said. 

“It could happen.”

MLAs met for the first time in months on Monday afternoon for a one-day sitting of the legislative assembly. The session was held at the town hall in Inuvik, N.W.T., with most MLAs participating remotely. It was the first time in more than 30 years that the legislative assembly held a sitting outside of Yellowknife.

Firefighting budget quadruples

Also on Monday, MLAs heard that firefighting efforts in the territory are likely to near $100 million this year — more than quadruple the amount normally budgeted each year for wildfire control.

Members voted unanimously to add another $75 million to this year’s firefighting budget. That’s on top of the base budget for fire suppression of about $21.8 million, said Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC) estimated that it needs another $69.5 million on top of the base budget this year, and that figure was rounded up to $75 million to allow for contingencies. 

The territory is still in the thick of an extraordinary wildfire season, with major fires threatening several communities, and the majority of the territory’s population under evacuation orders.

According to the territorial government, ECC was spending about $10 million per week “at the height” of this wildfire season.

Wawzonek said the additional $75 million for firefighting this year will likely be enough to cover the rest of the season, which typically ends in October.

However, she also acknowledged that “nothing this year has been typical.”

A large municipal building is seen from the outside.
Monday’s sitting of the N.W.T. legislative assembly took place in the Town of Inuvik’s council chambers. (Dez Loreen/CBC)

Wawzonek also acknowledged that the ballooning cost for firefighting this year will have a significant impact on the territory’s overall budget. She said that the wildfires, among other things, mean the $178-million surplus projected in the territorial budget earlier this year is “all but wiped out.”

She said the territory will continue to lobby the federal government for financial help.  

The supplementary budget appropriation of $75 million would only go toward firefighting costs. It would not cover any costs associated with the evacuation of communities.   

Also on Monday, MLAs debated a private member’s bill that would amend the territory’s Emergency Management Act to require the government to co-ordinate any emergency response with “Indigenous governments or organizations whose citizens or communities are affected by the emergency.”

MLAs voted to send the bill to committee for more study before voting on it.

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