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Jean Marie River works through the trauma of another evacuation

Jean Marie River's access road in August 2023. Photo: Arial Sanguez
Jean Marie River's access road in August 2023. Photo: Arial Sanguez


For some residents, Jean Marie River’s recent evacuation and return have revived a sense of urgency about change on the land and its impact on community members.

The evacuation order, issued on August 13 in response to a nearby wildfire and lifted on August 24, was just one more in a series of displacements. Flooding had also triggered an evacuation in 2021.

These disruptions are having lasting effects on residents and their land.

When the First Nation was first made aware of the latest evacuation order and impending danger to the area, residents gathered outside the band office looking for ways to help, according to Arial Sanguez, the interim chief who organized the evacuation.



“People were putting themselves forward to assist in any way that they can to get people out safely,” Sanguez said. “It was great to see everybody take their part and step in and come together in times of need.”

Residents were taken to Fort Simpson, where they stayed in a hotel. The goal, according to Sanguez, was to make people as comfortable as possible in such a situation. While residents were at the hotel, a few essential workers remained in the community to protect against the fires and any other threats to people’s homes. Sanguez was one of the essential workers who stayed behind.

Much of the time was spent working on fire prevention, monitoring the situation, checking in on houses and feeding residents’ pets, she said.

Communication was her main task. She said she would spend every day on the phone trying to get up-to-date information, despite the communications blackout affecting multiple NWT communities at the time.



With little to no resources in Jean Marie River, Sanguez said her time was spent calling various GNWT departments and other emergency numbers, then relaying messages to and from others still in the community.

On the whole, she said, the evacuation was a success. Residents were quickly relocated, their meals and hotels were covered by the band office, and essential workers were able to stave off the wildfire.

“We had a lot of support from our First Nation. They put us up in a hotel and funding sources were short,” said Melanie Norwegian Menacho, a resident of Jean Marie River. “They did their research and are trying to figure out how to help their people. They did assist us all the way and we’re very grateful for that.”

While residents were far from home, Sanguez said, essential workers in Jean Marie River discovered two European tourists paddling an inflatable boat down the Mackenzie River, unaware of the NWT-wide wildfires and regional evacuation orders. The tourists ran out of supplies en route and happened to stop in the community to stock up before continuing their trip to Fort Simpson.  

Personnel on site explained the situation to the tourists, and the two stayed in Jean Marie River overnight, Sanguez continued. As the fire had compromised the access road, a community member gave the tourists a ride by boat to safety in Fort Simpson the next morning.

Relief mixes with worry

When Jean Marie River’s evacuation order was lifted and replaced with an evacuation alert – meaning residents could come back but should be ready to leave at short notice – some returned home immediately. They discovered the change in evacuation status was one thing, and the situation on the ground another.

Norwegian Menacho returned the day the order was lifted with her father, but the two left again the next morning because of the dense smoke.

“It was really smoky. You couldn’t see anything and my father is 88 years old. I really wanted to make sure that he’s OK,” said Norwegian Menacho.



“I ended up taking my father back to Fort Simpson for the safety of his health, because his health is not good.”

On Sunday, August 27, Norwegian Menacho and her father returned again. By the next day, most of the community was home.

Since coming home, Norwegian Menacho described having mixed feelings. On the one hand, she missed home. On the other, it’s been difficult to feel safe and secure, knowing conditions can change at any moment and she may need to leave again.

“It feels good to sleep on my bed, feels good to be home. I’m glad we waited it out, because it’s still a lot of smoke around me,” Norwegian Menacho said. “I think a lot of people have a little bit of relief but a little bit of worriedness that the fire is not done yet.”

These worries extend past the community.

On the ride between Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson, Norwegian Menacho noticed strange animal behaviours that stuck with her. “All the smoke and the fire is affecting our animals. Some of them just sitting on the side of the road. Some of them laying down. I think they’re tired and stressed out,” she said.

“We live on traditional food. So, we really want to watch out for whatever we see on the land. I wonder what our food source is going to look like. These are worrisome to me.”

Norwegian Menacho interrupted her thoughts with the memory of a conversation with an Elder in the community.



“I started thinking negatively and an Elder told me: You’ve gotta stay positive. No matter what, you gotta stay positive. You’re still breathing, your heart is still pumping. You still could wake up in the morning. These are the things you’ve gotta look at,” Norwegian Menacho recalled. “Do positive for yourself when your brain starts thinking the worst. Keep your mind busy. Be active and do stuff to not go to the negative side of everything – that’s what she told me.”

The band office of Jean Marie River appears in a file photo from June 14, 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

Norwegian Menacho has kept these words in mind as she moves forward.

With all the changes on the land, Norwegian Menacho believes there is more that can be done to keep northerners in the North and on the land.

Meaningful consultations between communities and the territorial government would improve communications and directives, especially in emergency situations like this, she said.

Most residents did not return until a few days after the evacuation order was lifted.

“We waited it out, even though the government said go ahead,” said Norwegian Menacho. “When they’re trying to tell us how we need to be, what we need to do – come to our communities and stay in these situations, like what we’ve been facing with the floods, with the fires, and all the traumatic feelings that go with it.”

In the meantime, residents will continue to start their days by looking out of the window and check the wind.

“I don’t know if unpacking, or trying to feel at home, is going to feel at home until I see a snowfall and no smoke in the air – that’s when I know I’m safe,” said Norwegian Menacho.

“But until then, it’s unpredictable what’s gonna happen.”