‘Collective sadness’: Stories from N.W.T. evacuees
August 28, 2023
By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
How are evacuees from the Northwest Territories coping in new and sometimes uncertain accommodation?
Ninety-five per cent of the Yellowknife area was evacuated last week, while people living in Hay River, Fort Smith and Enterprise have now been out of their homes for two weeks. Most are in Alberta.
We asked evacuees to tell us how things are going, particularly their accommodation arrangements, as our inbox features a steady stream of messages from people worried about how they’ll stay safely sheltered until evacuations end.
We also asked the territorial government, City of Edmonton and Canadian Red Cross about some aspects of evacuees’ experiences. You can find their responses below.
By the time the evacuation order was announced in Yellowknife, Natasha Jones had already decided to leave the city with her husband and two dogs. They packed a car and drove to a hotel they had booked for three nights in Edmonton.
By Sunday, their stay was over, and Jones booked another week’s stay before heading to the Edmonton Expo Centre to register for evacuee services. There, Jones was reassured by the Red Cross that their hotel costs would be paid. On Friday, however, the hotel notified Jones that her $154-a-night stay was not covered by the Red Cross and was being extended by the hotel at the family’s expense.
“This has taken a terrible mental health toll. A lot of the people that I’ve spoken to personally are struggling, really struggling,” she said. “It is stark. I’ve never felt such collective sadness. People just don’t know what to do, don’t know how long it will be.”
At the Expo Centre, Jones observed a wide range of experiences for evacuees seeking services.
“A friend of ours was just told that she has to be out of her hotel by 11 a.m. today,” she said on Friday, “because the Red Cross hadn’t contacted her hotel, and she had just lined up, I think it was eight hours on Wednesday to extend her stay. I spoke with one lady the other day who was in tears, and she said, ‘I honestly don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can go through this after what I went through with Covid.’
“How can you evacuate people with five days of clothing, no car here, and just hope for the best? We had people in line next to us, older Indigenous folks who didn’t have any ID. They kept asking, ‘Where’s your ID?’ And they said ‘We live at this address.’ They kept repeating their address. I feel like some people were thrown to the wolves.”
For a time, an evacuee family with children and a dog had the room next to Jones.
“The mom would come out in the hallway just to cry. So, she would cry and then she’d go back in the room, because she has to pretend that this is an amazing adventure for their children, even though they’re scared.
“I’m just sitting here now, looking at a sign that says Tłı̨chǫ Government help desk, because they’re on the ground looking for members of their community. I just feel like a lot of the Indigenous community was left to fend for themselves and I think that is disgusting.
“We have one gentleman who’s a single dad with an autistic child. For him, this is an absolute nightmare. They don’t have a kitchen. His child is quite a picky eater and there’s this fear.
“People can’t possibly understand the uncertainty that we’re facing here on the ground and the toll that this is taking on people’s mental health,” Jones said. “The world is changing so much and we are in the middle of that change. And it is really hard to see it all around, on the news, everywhere, and then still be expected to function normally.”
All things considered, Jones counts herself lucky.
“The City of Edmonton has been incredible. Alberta has been incredible. The Red Cross has been incredible,” she said.
“N.W.T. Fire has been incredible. Their communications, Mike Westwick, was just the voice of reason and clarity that we needed. If you look to the press conferences, there was so much political speak.”
When David Stephens learned Yellowknife was under an evacuation order, his initial plan was to load a canoe with his dog, Milady, and paddle to the islands beyond Dettah. While Stephens had camping gear and provisions, the N.W.T. government urged evacuees not to leave by boat, so he changed his plans. He borrowed a friend’s van, stocked it with supplies and drove west, hoping that would ease the burden on southern jurisdictions.
“What was most important was getting out of the city and doing what the government asked us to,” Stephens said. “I just thought: the whole system seems overburdened, so I’ll drive out to Whitehorse.”
Stephens made the 1,800-km journey to Whitehorse, believing his gas would be reimbursed and accommodation covered. When he arrived on Monday night, he contacted the emergency line for evacuees, where he was told he’d receive accommodation and food vouchers until September 1. A day later, Stephens was informed he would get emergency services on a day-by-day basis, which left him with more questions than answers.
“You’re living day-to-day, not knowing if you’re going to have a place to stay or do you have to pack your stuff up and move to a different spot?” he said. “Living day-to-day is tough. Not knowing where you’re sleeping more than one or two days ahead is stressful, it’s worrisome.”
The ambiguity has taken a toll. For peace of mind, Stephens decided to leave government-assisted accommodation to house-sit for friends over the weekend. On Monday, he plans to stay in another friend’s camper parked in the driveway. After that, he’s not sure.
That uncertainty extends to Stephens’ return to Yellowknife.
“As of now, I have spent part of my rent, close to $400-$500 to get here, and now I don’t have that kind of money to even get back,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Stephens is now looking for work in Whitehorse to support himself and fund his return home.
“The next disaster, I feel like I’ll stay and volunteer instead of trying to leave town, because I can afford to volunteer but I won’t be able to afford to drive away,” he said.
“I wish the government had said, ‘If you leave in your own vehicles, you’re on your own financially.’ I wish they said that at their request of leaving the city, so we knew up front if we could afford it. Some people can afford it, some people can’t.
“I feel like myself and the others are ones who have fallen through the cracks just by choosing to go west instead of south with thousands of people.”
Despite all this, Stephens’ warmth and gratitude is unwavering as he describes the people who’ve supported him this past week – the outpouring from friends around the world writing to him to check in, help from his network in Whitehorse, local emergency service providers, the hotel, and meal services.
Heather Killingsworth expected support when she and her partner, a nurse in Yellowknife, arrived at Leduc’s registration centre for evacuees. Now, she’s not so certain.
“We still have not received any help or accommodations as of today, and it’s been eight days,” she said.
“We desperately need help with accommodation. We have been out-of-pocket for eight nights now at the hotel that will accept our three dogs.”
For accommodation alone, Killingsworth estimates their bill is $1,200, plus the cost of gas, food and clothing. Since last Friday, Killingsworth said she has been to the Expo Centre multiple times to register, and each time was told she would receive a call with instructions in 48 hours, but the call never came.
“Since that time, we have been on the phone at the Expo trying to get help with somebody to put us in a new room or take over payment of this room,” she said. “All they tell us is, ‘Somebody will call you. Somebody will call you.’ And they never do.”
Meanwhile, evacuees in nearby hotel rooms have their accommodation covered.
“There’s other evacuees who are already getting extended stays, and we haven’t even received our first assistance yet. And I just don’t understand how that’s fair how that’s happening,” Killingsworth said.
Confusion on the ground is compounded by a recurring sentiment among some evacuees who feel the GNWT is not communicating instructions, resources and plans effectively.
“I have felt zero results from the Government of the N.W.T. when it comes to giving any sort of help, guidance, or assistance. We check the website multiple times a day. I refresh it, refresh it, to see if they give us any information on what to do, and nothing,” Killingsworth said. “We just feel super let down by the Government of the N.W.T., almost to the point where I don’t even know if we really want to live there any more.”
Still, Killingsworth shared her gratitude for the many kindnesses during this time.
“I’m thankful for Alberta and everything that they’re trying to do for us. They’re very nice down here, we love the people down here, and we appreciate them and we appreciate the first responders up north. We are so thankful for them.”
When Stephen Petersen boarded an evacuation flight from Yellowknife, he was accompanied by two friends to assist him in his chair. They landed in Calgary’s city centre and were assigned hotel rooms shortly afterward.
Looking back, Petersen called the evacuation process scattered. He observed the impact this had on vulnerable airlifted residents who needed additional services on the ground, such as Elders, those experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities.
In the week since he arrived in Calgary, Petersen saw the situation devolve for homeless evacuees staying at the same hotel. He believes appropriate social services were lacking when they arrived.
“There were a fair amount of homeless people from Yellowknife and there were no resources here to greet them once they got to Calgary. There were a whole bunch of events that happened at the hotel that resulted in them getting evicted and taken to a homeless shelter,” he said.
Four or five days after landing in Calgary, social workers arrived at the hotel to offer services to evacuees. By then, it was too late, Petersen said, and many people in need of services had been taken to shelters in the city.
Petersen said he now has proper accommodation, meals, medical and social services. Initially, evacuees were told to expect a $50 daily allowance for meals that could be used at restaurants, and fees would be charged to the room, according to Petersen. After a few cases of overspending, Petersen said the hotel began supplying a limited range of meals that became a complication for those with dietary and health restrictions. When social workers were informed of this, they began supplying different foods, Peterson said, which has helped.
“In the community that I come from, we usually put a disability lens or an Elder lens on everything to make sure that it’s accommodating everybody. It’s being done now, four or five days later. They are catching up,” he said.
“We’re very fortunate to be here, as far as I’m concerned. Our needs are being met. Everybody here seems to be in good shape. We just don’t know – the uncertainty of when we’re going back is tough.”
Not everyone we heard from had negative experiences, and we wanted to share their input too.
Some evacuees who spoke to Cabin Radio said accommodation had been extended on their behalf until September 1. Some said they are receiving appropriate social and medical services, and others have even received home-cooked meals.
There was an exceptional amount of gratitude for the Government of Alberta, hotel staff, the Red Cross, N.W.T. Fire, all of the emergency responders fighting fires in the North, and individuals who have extended their generosity to support evacuees.
What does the GNWT say?
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek announced on Friday a new Evacuation Travel Support Program, which offers N.W.T. residents who left by car to a southern jurisdiction a one-time payment of $750 per vehicle. Those who evacuated within the territory by car will receive a one-time payment of $400 per vehicle.
The application process for those payments has yet to open.
“This is meant to alleviate some of the associated hardship and burden of having to travel often very long distances by vehicle when under order of evacuation,” the minister said.
“Details both about the travel support program, which we are hoping to have live by early next week, as well as details on how to register for return flights also should be coming out as soon as possible.”
We also asked about the varying range of services evacuees have told us they are receiving at different evacuation centres.
“We basically have an arrangement with the receiving jurisdiction – whether that’s the Yukon or Alberta or Manitoba, or whatever – and then they run the evacuation centres and provide the programs and services through those centres,” said N.W.T. government spokesperson Amy Kennedy, suggesting variations in supports came down to the governments responsible for those centres.
Asked about reports of homeless evacuees being evicted from emergency accommodation, Premier Caroline Cochrane said: “There will be people that do get kicked out, but we are reinforcing to people: go back to the evacuation centre. We will try to either have people to work with you, supports that are there to support you through, or we’ll be looking at other evacuation accommodations for people.”
Efforts to reunite communities are ongoing.
Dettah Chief Edward Sangris has asked Yellowknives Dene First Nation members to register their location through an online form.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government has a booth at the Edmonton Expo Centre to reconnect Tłı̨chǫ citizens and offer support.
“Homeless people – we’re just finding out that they’re in Whitehorse, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Calgary, and now we just found out more in Fort MacMurray,” Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty said earlier this week.
“Nobody talked to us. Our Tłı̨chǫ citizens were being put on a plane. Nobody informed us where they were going to ship them to.”
What does the City of Edmonton say?
The Canadian Red Cross told the City of Edmonton on Friday a city-wide shortage of hotel rooms exists – especially those that are pet-friendly – which may extend wait times, according to Sean Clovechok, incident commander at Edmonton’s Office of Emergency Management.
The Edmonton Expo Centre has cots for any evacuees without a bed, designated areas for those travelling with pets, and services like a doggie daycare and dog park.
“If Red Cross can’t place them in a hotel right away, they can stay here and we have cots set up with different areas for different people – so family, single female, and so on,” Clovechok said. “They can get three meals a day here.”
Evacuees can also access registration and administrative services, free public transit, recreation centres, clothing, and toiletries via the Expo Centre.
Clovechok said Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada had set up at the centre to re-issue government ID for Indigenous Elders without documentation.
“At the end of the day, we’re just here to help,” said Clovechok. “I have a home to go home to tonight, so I’m trying my best to help out anybody who’s not in the same situation.”
What does the Canadian Red Cross say?
Cabin Radio reached out to the Red Cross with some questions about their services. This was their reply:
“At the request of the City of Edmonton, the Red Cross is providing support with emergency accommodation at the Expo Centre and personnel are on site to assist as needed.
“We recognize this is a very challenging time for many people. At the Edmonton Expo Centre, the Red Cross is working as quickly as possible to ensure everyone is getting the attention and support they need. Our teams are working hard, and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we address their immediate needs.
“For additional information on how Red Cross is helping in N.W.T., please go here. For additional questions about the evacuation centre and services at the Expo Centre, please reach out to the City of Edmonton.”
The Canadian Red Cross also directed evacuees to the GNWT’s public safety website for more information on evacuation centres and supports.
Simona Rosenfield is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Cabin Radio.
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