Mix of relief, worry as Fort Smith jail jobs re-instated in N.W.T. budget

People in Fort Smith, N.W.T., say they're feeling a mix of relief and worry after the territory's finance minister reversed her decision to close the men's unit at the community's correctional facility.

Minister Caroline Wawzonek made the announcement at the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, saying funding for the jail — and $331,000 for two midwifery positions in Yellowknife — would be reinstated in the territory's proposed budget.

Partially closing the jail and discontinuing a midwifery expansion project in Yellowknife were part of the N.W.T. government's plan to manage the cost of unexpected events like wildfires and floods that have forced many communities to be evacuated over the past few years.

'Happy that I have a job'

A corrections officer at the Fort Smith Correctional Complex, who CBC has agreed not to name, said he was happy to hear the news that his workplace would stay open.

"I'm happy that I have a job and that I have an income," he told CBC on Thursday.

The worker also acknowledged that the funding for the facility is reinstated for one year.

Fort Smith Correctional Complex. One employee says staff have been given notice that the men's unit has been target for closure as a way of cutting costs.
The Fort Smith Correctional Complex. (Julie Beaver/CBC)

"It's only a year ... that gives us time to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, we have a job and an income," he said.

"I think we just showed the people in power that us as a community, we won't go down without a fight," he added.

Mike Couvrette, a long-time Fort Smith resident, said he thinks the move is "just a temporary reprieve" for the community.

"When they're looking for positions and things like that, Fort Smith seems to be the first rock that they lift up to try and find something under," Couvrette said.

"We may have won a skirmish here, but I think the battle is yet to be played out. So I'm hoping that our community leadership really takes this as a warning shot across the bow, as they say, and really prepare ourselves for a long battle with trying to protect our community interests."

Chris Westwell, president of the Thebacha Chamber of Commerce in Fort Smith echoed Couvrette's concerns.

"Our efforts seem to have made a difference," Westwell said. "But now we do know a little but more about what we're facing in the next few years as well.

"This is a huge win, but I think that now, everyone knows where the axe is," he added.

Closing the men's unit of the jail was expected to save the territory $2.7 million. There were plans to use the space and staff in Fort Smith to make a wellness centre instead.

The $331,000 for midwifery will be reinstated to cover a manager and a senior consultant midwifery position in Yellowknife.

Wawzonek told the legislature on Wednesday that the need for that type of support still exists, and must be guided by communities and regional governments.

Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek in the legislature Nov. 27, 2023.
N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek has reversed two controversial decisions made in her proposed budget: stopping a Yellowknife midwifery expansion, and closing the men's unit of the jail in Fort Smith. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

"We do not want to put a deadline on doing hard work," she said, adding that the government would provide updates on that work, as it continues.

Wawzonek also said midwives provide a "valuable service" and the territory is committed to expanding midwifery services to Behchokǫ̀, and another community that's yet to be determined, by the end of the current government's term.