OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will visit Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday to offer the support of all Canadians to the fire-ravaged community.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the prime minister thanked those who battled the huge wildfire and saved much of the city.
“I too … congratulate the brave firefighters and first responders who have been there to do extraordinary work through these terrible blazes in Fort McMurray,” Trudeau said.
He also thanked Canadians for their donations in the face of a crisis which has driven more than 80,000 residents out of the city.
“I want to congratulate all Canadian who across the country came together to give incredibly generously to the people of Fort McMurray through the Canadian Red Cross and in other ways.”
Last week, as the blaze worsened, Trudeau said a visit would have to wait. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley toured the city by bus on Monday and also praised firefighters for saving a majority of homes and buildings in the community.
But she said it’s not safe yet for people to return to homes that are still standing because large sections of town don’t have power, gas or water.
Meanwhile, federal Labour Minister Mary Ann Mihychuk said the government is working to speed up the handling of unemployment insurance claims from Fort McMurray and cut wait times for benefits.
“EI is to be there when people need it and the folks at Fort McMurray definitely need it, so we’re stepping up,” Mihychuk said.
She said staff are going to try to reduce the normal 28-day wait period substantially.
“If you are impacted by the Fort McMurray fire, there is a number, a designated number that indicates you were impacted by the Fort McMurray crisis. And that will help you speed up your claim and get benefits to you even quicker.”
Ministry officials said Tuesday there are 175 Service Canada staff helping displaced residents and 100 more who have volunteered to help, but haven’t been needed yet.
About 20,000 people affected by the fire have made EI claims using a special reference code the government set up to fast-track their claims.
The government has also outfitted rented RVs to drive into northern Alberta camping sites to act as mobile Service Canada offices for the estimated 3,000 evacuees living there.
And staff are also setting up shop in evacuee reception centres and coffee shops to catch people wherever they may be.
Mihychuk said she thinks people have been “more concerned about finding a place to sleep” and only now are starting to consider income support and EI.
“I expect it to grow steadily,” she said.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misidentified the location of Fort McMurray.