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Some Yellowknifers still missing after evacuation, society says

October 10, 2023
By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Buses of evacuees line up on the tarmac at Yellowknife's airport on Aug. 18, 2023. Photo: Andrew Goodwin/Cabin Radio.

Despite their best efforts to ensure Yellowknife’s most vulnerable residents were safe while under evacuation orders, Yellowknife Women’s Society staff and volunteers say they carry the scars of that period home with them.

“Three weeks is a long time to be on the street or, you know, be adrift in a dangerous situation. But in a government timeline, that’s no time at all,” said Shauna Morgan, a board member at the society.

“We didn’t have that time, and we couldn’t afford to have a bureaucracy operate in normal ways.”

Yellowknife was placed under an evacuation order in mid-August that lasted for three weeks as fire crews brought a dangerous fire west of the city under control.


This week, in a document titled YKWS Evacuation Story, the Yellowknife Women’s Society – or YKWS – published a harrowing account of the evacuation experience through its eyes.

The society alleges the evacuation was marked by false promises and incorrect information from officials, services without safety nets, a communication breakdown, and violence.

N.W.T. government officials say addressing some of the issues raised by the society is difficult as decisions spanned multiple jurisdictions and government agencies. The GNWT told Cabin Radio the society’s concerns are being reviewed internally.

‘Predictable and preventable’

The women’s society evacuated with some of its most vulnerable residents to an oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta – but not everyone came on that journey.

Many wound up lost in the system, the society said. Some went missing, and the society said two people it had worked with remained unaccounted-for as of Friday.

Missing person reports were filed for each, the society said.

A neighbouring agency in Yellowknife said it shared some experiences voiced by YKWS.

“It all resonates with me, but just probably not on the same level,” said Tony Brushett, executive director at the Yellowknife Salvation Army.

“There’s a lot of negativity about how it all played out. Rightfully so, we’re playing with people’s lives here. But I think we need to learn something from this.”

Throughout the evacuation, the women’s society said, staff and volunteers took calls from people in different cities who needed help accessing things like medication refills, transportation and meals.

“You hear in people’s voices how scared they were, just really vulnerable and needing support, and not knowing what’s going on,” said Lindsay Debassige, one of the society’s board members.

“It was really challenging. It was really upsetting and heartbreaking.”

“I got calls from people that had brought very little personal items with them,” said Zoe Share, deputy director at the society. “I had one person who was struggling to get menstruation products and didn’t know where to go.”

The society says it had stressed to governments the importance of keeping its community together during the evacuation, to provide continuity of care and harm reduction services.

Instead, this week’s document alleged and staff echoed, those suggestions were disregarded by government officials.

Share, who was with some of the society’s evacuees in Fort McMurray, said the group there had positive experiences as they remained together.

“Hearing from other people about their experiences in Calgary… I think there’s a stark comparison,” Share said.

Had everyone been able to stay together, “there wouldn’t have been this idea of people being lost, people getting kicked out of hotels, facing violence on the streets of major cities,” added Debassige, referring to reports that some people were removed from Calgary hotel rooms over concerns about their actions.

Brushett agreed that keeping people together would have been the best path forward.

“We would have been able to better keep in touch with them, and then not be lost in large cities,” he said.

Debassige described keeping the community together as a “form of harm reduction.”

“Especially for those that engage in substance use and have addictions, being able to support them through that,” Debassige said. “The drug supply that exists in a major city is quite different than we have access to here in the North. That has impacts, that has risks associated with it.”

The decision not to keep track of vulnerable residents at the start of the evacuation exacerbated the risks people faced, according to Debassige.

“There’s no way for us to actually know that everybody came back, because there’s no record of everyone who left – and that in itself was a huge misstep and incredibly violent,” Debassige said.

“The GNWT’s biggest mistake and the City of Yellowknife’s biggest mistake in all of this was not keeping a registry of everybody leaving town.”

Defeated by the system

Throughout the weeks-long evacuation, many vulnerable northerners were evacuated individually and without necessary help, which isolated them from existing community and familiar supports in a new city, according to Morgan.

When Morgan met a missing evacuee in downtown Calgary in early September, she was shocked to discover a lack of services that could ensure a meal and bed would be provided after the evacuee had been evicted from a hotel.

“We’ve already overcome the biggest hurdle,” Morgan said. “We found someone. We need to now support them and then get them home. Like, that seems so obvious.”

Instead, she said, she spoke with staff from the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), the City of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the GNWT, all of whom the same reply: “No, there’s nothing we can do.”

“To have that be the final answer, for me, it was absolutely heartbreaking,” Morgan said. “I’ve never felt so defeated by a system.”

Across 15 reception centres, Alberta says it supported 21,000 evacuees. The Alberta Emergency Management Agency, or AEMA, “provided many supports including temporary shelter spaces, access to hotel rooms, food, hygiene kits and mental health supports,” according to a statement from spokesperson Arthur Green.

The AEMA said host communities “made every effort to provide evacuees with the appropriate supports according to an individual’s specific needs.”

The statement concluded: “Emergencies of this scale are always complex and challenging to coordinate, particularly when an emergency crosses provincial jurisdictions, and we’re always reviewing how the agency can improve the overall response to future emergencies.”

Calgary agency CEMA said more than 4,000 evacuees found themselves in the city.

“In a small number of cases, evacuees were evicted due to a variety of reasons,” wrote CEMA representative Kaila Lagran.

“Initially, limited information was available regarding the diverse needs of evacuees… we deployed social workers to provide regular check-ins and offer referrals to appropriate resources.”

CEMA’s primary contact was with AEMA, who would coordinate contact with the GNWT on supports and services, according to CEMA’s statement.

The city “continues to maintain regular check-ins with organizations that support various vulnerable populations, with the ongoing goal of supporting any evacuees who remain in our city,” the statement concluded.

Crisis within a crisis

Before this summer’s wildfire crisis, the N.W.T. already faced a record-high cost of living and an ongoing housing crisis – issues that overwhelmingly impact the most vulnerable residents.

Even as the N.W.T. revealed a new monument to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, critics say the approach governments took to Yellowknife’s evacuation only heightened the risk of harm.

“As an Indigenous person, that was so upsetting to me – the way Indigenous people were being displaced from their homelands,” said Debassige, who is a M’Chigeeng Anishinabek two-spirit person.

“That colonial violence still exists here and there’s a lot of work that we need to do, as community members, to be able to decolonize our systems so that they are equitable, accessible, and inclusive.”

Wildfires threatened communities across the N.W.T. for months, leading Debassige to assert the territorial government had ample time to prepare for a Yellowknife evacuation.

“When people were deciding how the evacuation would take place, or that it would take place, was there any consideration to the fact that some people would be in a less safe environment leaving Yellowknife?” asked Share.

“It’s really unfortunate that people ended up in large cities with different drug supply.”

Share learned through word of mouth that two community members passed away in Alberta while under evacuation orders. Cabin Radio has not yet been able to independently verify the number of evacuees who passed away.

Share says she was told overdoses were involved.

“In our minds, those are casualties of the evacuation,” Share said.

Communication breakdown

Meanwhile, a communication breakdown was under way between various arms of government and NGOs.

The Yellowknife Salvation Army found one of its biggest challenges was communicating with the government.

“Getting to talk with the right people in the right positions… and not have to start over each day with, ‘Oh, you’re new on this file,'” said Brushett. “That was the biggest issue for me. If we had somebody that we could speak with who could make decisions… because every conversation was, ‘Oh, I’ll have to reach out to my superiors and get back to you on that.'”

YKWS staff said unfulfilled promises from government entities included the provision of group accommodation, a phased re-entry for vulnerable residents, and the promise of a “work plan” from health and social services minister Julie Green.

“The minister is aware of the issues raised by the YK Women’s Society,” read a statement from Jack Miltenberger, a spokesperson for Green.

“The content spans the mandate of many GNWT departments, and a comprehensive discussion, examination, and unpacking of these issues is under way.”

Talk of a “master list” of vulnerable evacuees compiled by the GNWT never materialized, YKWS said, even aftert the society gave a list of vulnerable residents on its radar to multiple government organizations that requested it.

When YKWS requested records of people evicted from hotels, passenger manifests, or evacuation registrations, the society said those requests were denied by the GNWT.

“The response that we generally got was that it was due to privacy concerns, although we often found that there were no concerns necessarily when we were being asked for information,” Share said.

“Not being able to have access to that data just completely impedes our ability to locate certain individuals.”

While YKWS staff and volunteers say there was a concerted effort from government employees to solve issues, they said institutional limitations and barriers were often highlighted.

“It was a system that lacked compassion and lacked ways for individuals to act with empathy and compassion,” said Morgan.

“It seemed like there were a lot of people frantically working and we couldn’t see any meaningful outcomes being produced, which is a real shame for everyone.”

“I’m sure that individually, yes, they did their best, but the system and our leadership has failed us in this scenario,” Debassige agreed.

The N.W.T.’s health authority said in a statement it was “primarily focused on patients, clients, and residents (long-term care) who were in our care at the time of the evacuation.”

Spokesperson David Maguire said the health authority helped YKWS by offering “support for staffing – including outreach nursing and shelter staff – and coordination with Alberta Health Services to highlight the needs of this particular group of residents and to advocate for services being provided to them.”

“We recognize the issues raised are important,” Maguire concluded, “and will work with partners to understand how they can be best supported both now and in the future in providing services to residents.

“We hope that the YKWS and all NGOs will participate in any after-action reviews that take place so we can better … plan for future emergency events.”

Unintended case study

Across its three programs, YKWS says it offers services to 93 residents. Twenty-five were identified as the “most vulnerable” and were offered care throughout the evacuation at facilities in Fort MacMurray, when at capacity housed 47 individuals, the society said.

Harm reduction services like a managed alcohol program were offered there, along with 24-hour healthcare. The society says wraparound supports like counselling, addictions management, housing, income support and recreation were available.

“That scenario was a really good unintended case study, I guess, of harm reduction in action,” said Share.

“If we already were used to taking a harm-reduction approach in everyday decisions, a lot of those supports and wraparound supports would have been available for a lot more people.”

Share believes these services could benefit members of wider society, who may also need additional supports after returning from the evacuation.

“Coping with stressful situations is a natural reaction that everyone does. And that coping can be realized in various ways, and one of those ways may be using drugs or alcohol,” Share continued.

“It’s not just our program participants that are engaging in these activities. I’m sure it’s impacting other people that evacuated from Yellowknife.”

YKWS staff and volunteers say they want a shift toward solutions that prioritize existing community and recognize its value in keeping people safe.

Offering individualized services “doesn’t replace the importance of having community ties, having support networks,” said Morgan.

“We need to build on and expand those kinds of services and models that both reduce harm and build community.

“We’re all responsible for our community and the system that we have.”

The society says its priority is now to locate the two missing community members and support those who have returned through their healing process.

Last week, residents went out on the land together.

“Just getting folks back on the land, being able to connect with culture, and having a sense of community outside of this space – outside of the city – that feels really good.” said Debassige.

Simona Rosenfield is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Cabin Radio.

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