Flood relief badly flubbed

You can debate the merits of the Yukon government providing disaster relief funds to residents whose homes are damaged or destroyed by flooding. Some will take the hard-headed view that flooding is a risk that comes with building on a floodplain.

You can debate the merits of the Yukon government providing disaster relief funds to residents whose homes are damaged or destroyed by flooding. Some will take the hard-headed view that flooding is a risk that comes with building on a floodplain. Others will side with helping affected homeowners, noting that flood insurance is hard to come by in Canada – because only people living in flood-prone areas would buy it, these policies end up being prohibitively pricey.

But surely we can all agree that the Yukon government has shown nothing but callous ineptitude by stringing along homeowners near Ross River who have waited for nearly three years to learn whether such help will be forthcoming.

These homeowners had good reason to believe they would receive a timely answer. Not long after the Pelly River breached its banks, they heard from Yukon Housing Corporation officials that past decisions had been made in six months or less. And they knew that residents in similar situations received help. In 2007, residents of Marsh Lake and surrounding areas were offered grants and interest-free loans of up to $35,000 to help with repairs. And in 2012, $3.5 million in assistance was offered to help 13 homeowners in Upper Liard relocate or rebuild.

And so they waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, this week the Yukon Housing Corporation indicated that some federal housing money may be available to affected homeowners, through an emergency repair program that could offer residents up to $50,000. The Yukon government also says it is preparing a policy to prevent affected homeowners from being left hanging for so long in the future, by ensuring a decision about flood relief would be made within six months.

That’s good to hear, but the Yukon government still hasn’t offered a cogent explanation about why affected homeowners have had to wait until now for an answer. Little wonder: a review of the public record makes it hard to escape any other conclusion than this is a result of bone-headed mismanagement.

It sounds as if officials with the Yukon Housing Corporation and the Department of Community Services both expected their counterparts to take the lead on the file. As a consequence, for a long time nothing ended up being done.

Housing corporation officials have suggested that they were waiting to see if federal disaster relief funds would be available to them, but it turns out that such funds would only be available after the territory created its own disaster assistance program – something that never happened before the federal government’s six-month deadline.

The housing corporation also insists that creating a disaster assistance program wasn’t their job: that responsibility fell on the Department of Community Services. And officials at that department refuse to say why this program was never created.

What’s all the more strange about this is that there is evidence that the government was, in fact, preparing such a program, but for reasons unknown it never followed through. Briefing notes prepared for the housing minister in the autumn of 2013 said that “a flood program for the spring 2013 floods is being developed.”

Internal correspondence within the housing corporation also says that the riding’s Yukon Party MLA, Stacey Hassard, told property owners that a flood program was being developed. (Hassard initially refused to be interviewed on the subject. When we recently managed to buttonhole him, he insisted he doesn’t recall making this commitment.)

While the government’s flood relief plans never materialized, officials also seemed unwilling to rule out help in the future. When we asked housing officials about the long delays back in August 2015, they insisted that a decision would be made by the fall of that year. But they flubbed that deadline too.

It remains a mystery why our political leaders seemed equally incapable of either following through with their flood relief plans or actually ruling out such assistance. But Premier Darrell Pasloski’s fondness for shuffling his cabinet may well have contributed to this dithering.

After all, the appointment of a new minister will often put long-standing plans on hold for months while the boss is brought up to speed. And since new ministers often have new priorities, it’s conceivable that this particular file ended up being buried by other business.

Consider this: since the time the Pelly River flooded we’ve had five ministers who could have been involved with this file. Community Services has been run by Elaine Taylor, then Brad Cathers and now Currie Dixon. The housing corporation has been overseen by Scott Kent, then Brad Cathers and now Stacey Hassard. Both organizations also saw departures at the senior management level during this period.

All this shuffling about makes it difficult to hold anyone in cabinet accountable for their actions, since by the time a political mess is discovered, there’s usually a new minister in charge who will shrug and say he or she is still coming up to speed on the file and can’t really comment. This must be often viewed as a feature, rather than a bug, by the premier. But it also must further bog down the treacly speed at which our government moves.

And, in this case, such inertia creates real hardship for affected Yukoners. One is Murray Reid. After the flood destroyed both his home and a cabin that he depended upon for income as a rental property, he spent two years living in a trailer on the property, thinking he would soon be hearing from the government about assistance. But that call never came.

Reid says he’s been unable to work because of hip replacement surgery and has been living on social assistance since losing his rental income. Faced with the prospect of another cold winter without a real home, he finally left his property in the fall and is now living in a Whitehorse motel. He welcomes the possibility of now receiving help, but he’s understandably angry about how long it’s taken.

“I never felt old until recently,” he told the News recently. “My hair went grey, just like that – it was almost like overnight. Just stress and being mad all the time.”

If our government had any decency it would issue an apology to the families involved. The implausibility of this actually happening, given the Pasloski government’s rule of refusing to ever concede it has ever done anything wrong, says much about the sort of leadership we have.