Decision not to host evacuees comes under scrutiny

THUNDER BAY – A Thunder Bay city councillor wants to take a closer look at the city’s decision not to host evacuees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coun. Mark Bentz says city council should be more engaged in the decision, which was made by the city’s Municipal Emergency Control Group (MECG).

The city announced in late March it would not offer itself as a host for those fleeing natural disasters this summer. Mayor Bill Mauro said in April feedback from the MECG indicated emergency services could not handle the additional strain of an evacuation.

"I simply look at our paramedic chief, our fire chief and our police chief, and I say, can we manage this?  And are we able to meet our response times for the people in the city of Thunder Bay?" the mayor said. “We simply, at this point, are so overwhelmed when it comes to the capacity and the ability to provide our emergency services to support an evacuation.”

Thunder Bay regularly hosts residents of northwestern Ontario communities hit by floods and wildfires. In 2019, for example, the city welcomed more than 1,000 evacuees from Pikangikum First Nation due to wildfires, and hundreds from Bearskin Lake due to flooding.

Bentz recently filed a motion asking city administration to recommend ways to engage city council on the issue. He says while the decision not to host evacuees may be justifiable, it’s one city council needs to be involved in.

“The resolution comes with no opinion one way or the other,” he says. “I’m looking for recommendations on how to engage council more in these decisions, and information on why the system is set up the way it is.”

“When those types of decisions are made, there is a political component to it, and council needs to be in the loop. We can’t just be informed later that the decision has been made and relayed to the province.”

The city’s decision on hosting evacuees could carry major repercussions for its reputation and relationships, Bentz says – hence the importance of bringing it to the council table.

“I think it’s very important we be a welcoming community and help those in need in any ways we can – especially in an emergency situation in which their community might be threatened by fire or flooding,” he says. “Certainly it may have impacts on our relationship with the province, a major community in the northwest not willing to participate with assisting with evacuees.”

The MECG is chaired by city manager Norm Gale, and includes other members of city administration, police, fire, and EMS, the regional hospital, district health unit, area school boards, and more. The group has met regularly to help guide the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bentz says he appreciates the role the group has played, but with no active requests from communities to host evacuees, believes there’s time for the city’s ultimate decision-making body to weigh in.

“I can understand why the MECG needs to be able to act autonomously when our community is facing an emergency, like we are with COVID-19,” he says. “But right now, it’s not a split-second decision. There have been no requests that we host.”

“I want Thunder Bay to position itself as a leader. If we aren’t capable for whatever reasons, I think council should understand those reasons very well, and be engaged in the discussions and communication.”

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