Q+A | Mayor of Norman Wells, N.W.T., says hosting wildfire evacuees left his town in a tough spot

Frank Pope, the mayor of Norman Wells, N.W.T., says it was just a bit of good luck that meant his small community was able to accommodate hundreds of wildfire evacuees from neighbouring Fort Good Hope in recent weeks.

"This hit us at a good time, when we did have a little bit of extra money in our budget, money we did not spend on projects," he said.

"I don't think any other community, [any] smaller community than ours, could ever have done this."

Pope says he is now worried about what comes next for his community. The three-week-long evacuation of Fort Good Hope ended last weekend, but in Norman Wells, there are still bills to pay and a lot of depleted supplies.

Pope spoke to CBC Trailbreaker host Hilary Bird on Tuesday morning about his concerns.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You managed to take in hundreds of people in a matter of hours and they made your community home for nearly three weeks. What are things like now that they've left?

Well, everything's quieted down now. It was good to see them all head home and get back to their own community.

We are now doing an assessment of how it was handled and how it can be done better in the future if we ever had to do it again. We're also looking at things that may have gone wrong. We're trying to come up with a good synopsis on the whole situation. Because initially, we were told we were going to get 75 to 100 people. We got 240. So I'm proud of the way our community stepped up and made it work.

Right now, we're in clean-up mode. We're getting the school back to normal, we're getting all the facilities back to normal. We've got a whole bunch of people just working to clean the place up.

Two hundred and forty people — that is a lot, for a town the size of Norman Wells. Can you talk to us about what it took, in terms of supplies, finances, just to host this many people?

We, right now, are at $400,000 in expenditures out of our town budget. That's how much we've spent already and we still have some bills coming in.

We had a company support us with cooks: Horizon North out of Edmonton. They sent up five cooks to help us out after we got through the initial few days. We flew them in, gave them a place to stay, and that company covered all their expenses or wages. So that was a big bonus.

We brought in a security team from Yellowknife. They fit in perfectly and did a great job on our behalf. And at the same time, we had a lot of our own people volunteering to do stuff like security, to cook, to clean and just to keep the people occupied. Our recreation team was busy in the pool and looking out for folks there.

Cameraon Boniface, left, and other Fort Good Hope residents look through donated clothing at the Norman Wells curling rink.
Evacuees from Fort Good Hope look through donated clothing at the Norman Wells curling rink in June. (Emma Tranter/CBC)

It was just a busy, busy time. And I think we handled it quite well.

This happened on top of the resupply disaster we're in. We're in a mess right there. But we still managed to bring all these people in, look after them comfortably, and in the meantime we're really worried about the resupply coming back.

I mean, these stores were resupplied on the winter road. And now a lot of what they figured was going to last them through the season has all been used up to feed everybody. So I worry about our storekeepers, and how they're handling more stock to come in now to replenish what they've used — and at what cost to the community? Because everything that comes in, there is a cost, and the freight cost is the killer.

We had Premier R.J. Simpson on the show, saying that the territorial government will cover these costs. How confident are you that that's going to happen?

Well, you know, once bitten, twice shy. There's still those $250,000 in COVID expenses they said they would pay.

But in this case, it was a situation where we could not refuse to look after our neighbours from Fort Good Hope. So we did what had to be done, and we used our own budget to do it.

We anticipate and demand every cent spent being repaid by the government — whether federal or territorial, we don't care. We want every cent back.

We even dug into the food bank money to help supply stuff. We were flying stuff in every few days just to make sure people had fresh food, fresh fruit. We were able to come up with Pampers for the babies. We were able to come up with toothpaste, toothbrushes. We were able to find every damn thing that was required. And again, most of this is at our town's cost. We are subsidizing the government.

It sounds ridiculous, but here's a small community of 800 people subsidizing two levels of government.

N.W.T. Premier R.J. Simpson, centre, visited Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells this week to meet with community members.
N.W.T. Premier R.J. Simpson, centre, visited Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells last week to meet with community members. (Submitted by the N.W.T. government)

You said you're still owed $250,000 from COVID expenses?

There were $250,000 bucks, we figure, from of all the money we spent there which we were promised would be refunded. Then when it came time for payback, not a damn cent was paid back to us.

I know that Premier R.J. Simpson came up and met with your senior administrative officer, but, Mayor Pope, have you been in contact with anyone from the territorial government about when this money could be repaid?

I'm letting our staff do that right now — that's their role, they're pushing on it. Whenever it becomes political, I will jump in and help them.

So far some money, a small cheque, has been received, $25,000 to $30,000 up front. So they have started some repayment.

We have kept a very, very precise record of what we did spend, and so we're OK there.

But what's the future going to be for Norman Wells? We'd like to demand — and I mean the word demand — that the government of the Northwest Territories, under its current leadership and under the 20th Assembly, commit to completing the all-season road from Wrigley to Norman Wells within the duration of their term.

Because of the low water levels and the barge being cancelled, you mentioned that in order to feed these 240 people who came into your community from Fort Good Hope, you had to bring in supplies, you had to sort of deplete the supplies that you had expected to last all winter. Have you talked to the grocery stores in the community, about how that that is affecting them and how it will affect the cost of goods for the people who live in Norman Wells?

Well, they're going through the process right now of replenishing, but they're short to get them through the rest of this calendar year. And they are saying it's going to cost more. The freight rates keep going up. I think it was $25,000 for groceries on one of the lifts we brought in over the evacuation situation — $16,000 in freight was on top of that. So it shows you just how much you're paying for freight.

We did get a good break from Buffalo Airways, I'm sure the merchants are still getting a good deal there, but that could only last for so long as well.

So I'm thinking when these stores replenish their stock, these prices are going to go up even higher. We're afraid we could be losing people from our community. We've lost some already. The cost of living here is atrocious. The cost to eat, the cost to feed your family, the cost for fuel — it is atrocious, and it's very hard to take. Even a single-income family of people who are working are having to use their food bank right now.

It's not a very good situation, Hilary. We're having tough times.

I'm sorry to hear that. Mayor Pope, before we let you go, are there discussions with the territorial government about how things need to improve, for other communities who may be bringing in evacuees?

Well, it was just this weekend we've got through everybody, we got them all home safely by late, late Saturday night.

We are now in the stage of doing a synopsis on the entire process, and we will be releasing what we find and what our suggestions are for the future to the government. But we don't want to just do a quickie, take a couple of days, write a bunch of stuff up. We want to make sure we are thorough in our assessment and that's what we will be providing to both levels of government.

Off the top of your head, are there things that you wish had been done differently?

We were able to do it because we're fairly affluent, we've got some contracts that we were unable to fulfil because of the barge not being able to bring in materials. This hit us at a good time, when we did have a little bit of extra money in our budget, money we did not spend on projects. I don't think any other community, any smaller community than ours, could ever have done this.