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United Way NWT 'coffers empty' as it awaits almost $1M from federal government

People without vehicles lineup to register for a flight to Calgary, Alberta in Yellowknife on Thursday, Aug. 17. The United Way has been distributing funds to organizations helping evacuees.  (Bill Braden/The Canadian Press - image credit)
People without vehicles lineup to register for a flight to Calgary, Alberta in Yellowknife on Thursday, Aug. 17. The United Way has been distributing funds to organizations helping evacuees. (Bill Braden/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Nearly three months have passed since the Government of Canada announced it would match donations to the United Way of the Northwest Territories to support residents impacted by wildfires, but the organization says it hasn't received a dime from the federal government.

The United Way has been providing support to thousands of displaced residents through community groups for months. It is the largest group doing this type of work in the absence of the Red Cross having a significant presence in the Territories.

David Connelly, chair of the United Way NWT Emergency Response Committee, says this week the organization ran out of funds to distribute to groups in need.

"Our coffers are empty," he told CBC. "We are now having to say no to people desperately in need of money."

He says the federal government reached out to the United Way offering to match donations some time during the first wave of wildfires this year in the Territory. On June 5, it made a public commitment to match donations made by the public.

During a June meeting, Bill Blair — the then-minister of emergency preparedness who is now Canada's national defence minister — commended the organization for its work.

"He assured us the money was flowing in that it was a top priority for his staff," he said.

The United Way has now responded to eight wildfires with evacuations and received requests for help from more than 50 community organizations and First Nations, he said.

Evacuees leave Yellowknife
Evacuees leave Yellowknife

Many evacuees leaving Yellowknife and other communities were supported by organizations who received money from United Way NWT. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"To date we've raised over $900,000 from the public, which we're expecting the Government of Canada to match," he said.

He said the organization's speed in being able to act is key to its success during a crisis, helping organizations pay for everything from evacuation flights to baby supplies.

The United Way has been aiming to offer money within around 18 hours of an organization being approved for funding, he added.

"But we can't do it if it takes them 90 days to get us the money," he said.

Government working to resolve soon

Annie Cullinan, communications director for the emergency preparedness ministry, said the government is working on the issue.

In a Monday statement to CBC, she said: "Federal officials are working closely with the United Way of the Northwest Territories to put in place the necessary arrangement to match donations, as committed to in June, and we will have more details to share very soon."

But for Connelly, soon isn't quick enough.

Recently, ministry staff have asked for more details including posing questions Connelly believes should have been asked months ago, he said,

"We need the funds. Now is not the time to ask additional questions," he said.

Michael McLeod, the Territories' MP and member of the Liberal government, said he was made aware of the funding delays Tuesday and is pressing his colleagues to ensure funding is delivered quickly.

"I understand work is ongoing within the federal government to expedite this process," he said.

In a statement received by CBC late Tuesday, Public Safety Canada said it has directed officials to "work as expeditiously as possible to issue the payment to the United Way of the Northwest Territories," adding it would continue to support the agency during the ongoing wildfire crisis.