Wood Buffalo councillors approve $2M to help Fort McMurray residents rebuild after wildfire but some are disappointed
Two-and-a-half years after Fort McMurray’s catastrophic wildfire destroyed about 2,400 residences and buildings, some homeowners still struggling financially under the process of rebuilding are going to be given the opportunity to access $6 million in new relief money.
On Tuesday night, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Council voted to approve the earmarking of $2 million to help rebuilding homeowners “who continue to be impacted by rebuilding subsequent to the 2016 Horse River wildfire,” also known as “the Beast.”
“This amount matches an additional $2 million in funding provided by the Government of Alberta, along with the Canadian Red Cross earmarking $2 million within its current funding allocation for recovery for a total combined commitment of $6 million,” the RMWB said in a news release issued on Wednesday.
The money comes just days before owners of units in the Hillview Park condo complex — which is still under construction — faced a short-notice condo assessment fee of about $17,000 per owner. Several owners of units in the complex had been campaigning for help on social media in recent weeks, saying the problematic rebuild has left many of the on the brink of financial collapse and some even feeling suicidal.
“There’s a lot of people considering bankruptcy, but there’s a fair number of people considering suicide as a way to get out,” Becky Benoit, who along with her husband owns a condo in the Hillview complex, told Global News earlier this month.
The RMWB said the approved funds “will be used for primary resident homeowners who are still not back in their home after the disaster to cover costs of interim housing and special assessment fees being faced by homeowners during the rebuilding process.
“This includes assistance for primary resident homeowners of Hillview Condominiums.”
“We recognize some residents have gone through hardship and difficulty because of the rebuild process and decisions made beyond their control,” said RMWB Mayor Don Scott. “We stand by these residents and will continue to champion their cause.”
Service Alberta Minister Brian Malkinson said in addition to the new relief money, his government has also provided health supports to Fort McMurray evacuees still struggling in the aftermath of the fire and “we will continue to support residents as we look forward to the day when they’re all able to return home.”
Hillview condo owner Sheila Champion, who ended up in Yellowknife, N.W.T.after being displaced by the 2016 wildfire, told Global News earlier this month that she and her husband were not going to have the money to pay the condo board $17,000 by Thursday’s deadline. She now says she worries the relief funds won’t accessible to all condo owners who need it.
“I received a call from Mayor Don Scott this evening with what sounded like great news,” Champion wrote in an email late Tuesday night. “I immediately went to my owner group and announced that help was on the way. You, Mr. Scott, said for owners affected by the rebuild, including — but not limited to — Hillview.
“Sadly that excitement immediately disintegrated when I saw a news release. Needless to say, I am incredibly disappointed by the RMWB, the Government of Alberta and the Red Cross’s response to the advocacy efforts put forth by myself and Rebecca Benoit on behalf of Hillview residents.”
Champion said because the funding is limited to primary residents only, it “essentially divides Hillview owners into two groups: those that deserve help from their government, and those who don’t — through absolutely no fault of their own.
“You’ve applied a caste system which will ensure many families go into bankruptcy, many children lose their educations, many couples lose their marriages, their health and potentially their lives,” she said.
“None of these owners, whether living in the units or renting them, would be in this circumstance if not for the fire.”
Watch below: Aerial footage taken from above Fort McMurray, Alta. in May 2016 looks at the destruction in the Abasand and Beacon Hill neighbourhoods. The video was taken just days after more than 80,000 people were forced from their homes due to a raging wildfire.
Benoit, who earlier this month said she and her husband will likely declare bankruptcy soon because of mounting costs associated with their condo, said she and her husband have not qualified for Red Cross assistance because they are considered “investor owners.”
She said they moved out of the condo when they got work in Calgary and were unable to sell it since. They now reside in Saskatoon.
Champion told Global News about another person who owned three units and didn’t qualify for any help. She said he had to pay $90,000 on short notice for the last assessment and is now “substantially in arrears.”
Champion and Benoit have also raised questions about the construction work being done on the Hillview project, about its delays and about its skyrocketing expenses. They both have been calling for a forensic audit of the condo board’s decisions in the wake of the 2016 disaster. Champion said she is frustrated the government has not commissioned one.
She also said she believes providing funds without a full audit could mean money going to questionable contractors or other building managers.
“Those of us who have been further financially and emotionally damaged by this shortsighted and politically expedient decision will not roll over quietly while we watch everything we have worked for be destroyed.
“This is not our fault.”
Jenn McManus, vice-president of the Canadian Red Cross for Alberta and the Northwest Territories, issued a statement in which she said the “pace of recovery from a disaster is as unique as the people affected by it.”
“At times, it can be complicated,” she said. “[But] the Canadian Red Cross remains present in the Fort McMurray area and continues to help people, including the primary resident homeowners of Hillview Condominiums, with their recovery through financial assistance, as well as emotional and mental health supports and referrals.”
People impacted by the 2016 wildfire disaster who still aren’t back in their primary homes are encouraged to contact the Canadian Red Cross by phone at 1-888-553-5505 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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