N.W.T. minister slams MLA’s decision to return to Yellowknife despite evacuation order; RCMP investigating

An N.W.T. MLA’s decision to re-enter Yellowknife despite a city-wide evacuation order is drawing ire from her colleagues and city officials, and has triggered an RCMP investigation.

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby returned to Yellowknife Wednesday to volunteer as an adviser for Ernest Betsina, the incoming Yellowknives Dene First Nation chief for Dettah.

It isn’t clear if she’s allowed to be there, though Nokleby told CBC News she believes she re-entered legally. The evacuation order for Yellowknife, N’dilǫ, Dettah, and the Ingraham Trail states only essential persons are allowed in these communities right now.

The N.W.T. RCMP confirmed to CBC News they have received a complaint related to Nokleby’s actions and have opened an investigation.

Nokleby said she returned to Yellowknife on Wednesday from Behchokǫ̀, where she and her cats were staying with Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong, to put her engineering background and knowledge of government systems to use. 

“I can provide good advice to people,” she said. “I have a lot to offer. I don’t have a family. It’s just me that I’m worried about. So you know, at the end of the day, whether I sit here, or I sit in Behchokǫ, I’m much more useful here.”

She also told CBC News she doesn’t believe the wildfire burning out-of-control 15 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife poses an urgent threat.

Leaders slam decision to return

In an email Saturday, Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson condemned Nokleby’s actions.

“If the reports are true, it is very frustrating that the MLA would choose personal comfort over complying with public safety orders at a time when Yellowknifers and residents from seven other communities are forced to leave their communities,” Thompson wrote.

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane issued a rebuke of her own Saturday, telling CBC News Nokleby’s characterization of the wildfire threat is “not the reality.”

“I’m disappointed in any person that returns to the Northwest Territories that doesn’t have a necessary purpose to be there, and especially disappointed that any leader — in any capacity — would go back and tell the people that it’s not very bad … the sun is shining, things are good,” Cochrane said.

“I would never, myself, speak against what the firefighters, what the professionals, what all the experts are telling me.”

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane pictured at Yellowknife’s Multiplex in July. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

At Friday night’s wildfire press conference, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty also addressed Nokleby’s comments.

She called Nokleby’s characterization of the wildfire situation “incredibly disrespectful” to fire crews who are working long days and missing time with their families. 

“I do hope there will be an apology to all of these people. There is a sense of urgency, and a deep sense of love and passion for our community,” Alty said.

Nokleby told CBC News she expected to take some heat for her decision, but says she followed the rules.

She and Betsina both say she’s an “essential” volunteer, though NNSL reported the Yellowknives Dene First Nation disavowed any connection to Nokleby and said chiefs and council had not had any contact with her.

While Betsina is the chief-elect for Dettah, having won the recent election, he has not yet taken over for current chief Edward Sangris.

A portrait of a man in a beaded vest.
Dettah incoming chief Ernest Betsina, pictured here in September 2020. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Nokleby also concedes the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which includes the emergency management organization, declined her request to volunteer in the Yellowknife protection effort. 

Nokleby said she was told that if she could join a team already in Yellowknife, she could get on their essential workers list.

“And that is what I did. I didn’t crash the gate. I didn’t come in on a boat. I came in through the roadblock and I was allowed in,” she said. “I didn’t break a rule and just show up here. I followed the rules I was given by the minister.”

Who is deemed essential?

Thompson said when Nokleby requested permission to re-enter the city, she was reminded of the mandatory evacuation order and given information on what’s required to be designated as an essential worker.

The authority for designating someone as an essential worker lies with the territorial government’s emergency management organization, Thompson said.

Firefighters and police officers both qualify, as do people who operate critical telecommunications and municipal infrastructure.

People providing food, shelter and basic essential services to frontline responders can also qualify, as well as people taking over “indispensable duties” from other essential workers.

“Currently, there is no need for more essential workers in evacuated communities,” Thompson wrote.

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