Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8. (Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio)

Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8. (Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio)

Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

  • Jun. 17, 2021 1:30 p.m.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand when the federal government promised Canadian Rangers would come to the rescue.

Almost a month after the Rangers were called into Fort Simpson, it appears only two Canadian Rangers – both of whom live in the same village – were assigned to assist.

Fort Simpson’s mayor, Sean Whelly, said the village was “surprised“ and “disappointed” by the outcome.

“We just didn’t know, I think, what the capacity of the military was in the North,” he said.

“We were never told anything. We’ve had people with the military who actually came into town before, and there was never any advertisement that if we ever needed boots on the ground, it’d be an issue or problem.

“If the answer had been given to us the same day, we might have had some things to say about it, but it came so late there was nothing we could really do about it.”

Whelly thinks there was confusion among all parties involved regarding “what the military’s role or capacity would be during an emergency.”

The Canadian Rangers normally serve in a volunteer capacity and are usually dispatched to operations near their homes, so the involvement of Rangers who live locally is not a surprise.

The number of Rangers assigned to Fort Simpson, however, did not meet the village’s expectations. Not only that, but the two Rangers tasked to help the community were distracted by flooding at their own homes – understandably, a priority.

On May 15, federal defence minister Harjit Sajjan said in a tweet that the Rangers would be sent to flood-affected N.W.T. communities.

Following that request, “two Canadian Rangers belonging to the Fort Simpson patrol were employed from 15 to 18 May,” according to Captain Suzanne Nogue, a spokesperson for Joint Task Force North, the Yellowknife-based regional wing of the Canadian Armed Forces.

“The availability of Fort Simpson Canadian Rangers was impacted as several of them were also displaced by the flood,” Nogue said by email.

“Once the risk of additional flooding passed, the two Canadian Rangers who were employed began working on repairs to their own homes, as they themselves were affected by the situation.”

Nogue said the two Rangers also helped by providing a “liaison with community leaders to understand the flood situation, and conducting general and logistical tasks, such as support to those displaced from their homes but remaining within the community.”

Why didn’t more assistance come?

The N.W.T.’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said Fort Simpson’s request for the Rangers’ assistance “was approved on May 15 to provide for a six-week period until June 25, with a reassessment to take place after the initial period to determine the continued need.”

The department said it “was aware that there were only two available Rangers on the ground.” A request for additional Rangers or military support was discussed with the Canadian Armed Forces.

A spokesperson said the department “was advised by the military that they did not have the ability to move and sustain Rangers away from their home communities at the level requested by Fort Simpson.”

The spokesperson continued: “Rangers were needed in some communities to assist with flood preparation, and others would not have been self-sustaining and would have needed accommodations.”

Nogue said Rangers are not able to “deploy at length in environments lacking the infrastructure to support their accommodation, feeding and hygiene needs.”

Whelly said the village was unaware of that stipulation.

“We were initially looking for Rangers’ help to set up the tent camp and things like that, and the letter said they couldn’t come because we didn’t have places for them to stay – so that was kind-of weird,” he said. “Wouldn’t they bring their own tents?”

The mayor continued: “We couldn’t provide them accommodation so they couldn’t come. But in an emergency where there are no houses, how are we supposed to get help?”

“The fact they still couldn’t come as emergency workers even during Covid, that’s another issue.”

Asked why other Canadian Armed Forces members couldn’t come, the N.W.T. government said accommodation remained the problem.

“The GNWT could have requested military volunteers in the N.W.T. to provide assistance with clean-up. However, these individuals would have needed to be provided with accommodations,” the spokesperson said.

“In the immediate aftermath of the flood it was not clear if the community could accommodate. JTFN confirmed that self-sustaining troops (ones who would bring their own accommodations, food, shelter, etc) would need to come from outside the N.W.T. and would require another formal request for federal assistance.”

Planning for next year

Whelly said Fort Simpson “fully expects” to be on flood watch again next year and plans on making better preparations for the possibility of a damaging flood.

“You’d think that emergency operations at the territorial level, they would have been well aware of what the capacity of federal resources would be,” the mayor said.

“We’re just going to have to remember this is how it was and, clearly, we’ll have to make some changes in the future.”

The N.W.T. government said it “has been made aware that there were gaps in the formal communication on the status of Rangers during the flood response,” and will be examining what happened and making recommendations in its “after action review.”

— Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative, Cabin Radio

NWT News North