Evacuees head to an aircraft at Hay River's airport. Photo: Town of Hay River
Some NWT evacuees who fled to other jurisdictions are now asking themselves a difficult question: Would life be better if they settled outside the territory?
People living in the Yellowknife area have now been out of their homes for two weeks. Residents of Hay River, Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Fort Smith and Enterprise had to leave their homes some 17 days ago. Evacuees have fled to destinatons like Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and the Yukon.
The experience has been stressful, but it has also been eye-opening for some.
Some residents say the NWT government’s handling of the evacuations has caused them to reconsider their lives in the territory. Others have found they feel more at home in the places they are now staying.
Still others have been scrolling through real estate listings, dreaming of a different life in the south.
Cabin Radio asked people who are questioning their future in the NWT to tell us about their thought processes. Here’s what they are weighing up.
One Yellowknife resident, asking to remain anonymous to discuss his family’s future, said he and his partner have considered whether they should stay in the North for some time.
“We have a young child together and don’t think Yellowknife is a good place to raise her,” the person said by email, adding that evacuations are one of many factors that play into that perspective.
So far, the child seems to be handling the evacuation well, the resident said. Still, the family doesn’t want to go through another evacuation in the future – especially, the man said, given the way the GNWT is dealing with the current situation.
“I lost all trust in GNWT,” he said.
The NWT government’s decision-making around the evacuation order was “extremely slow,” he said, and communication over the past few weeks has been lacking.
“I fear that, even now, we are not being told the full picture of what is really going on,” he said.
The resident added that seeing how Alberta has handled more than 20,000 evacuees has brought the territory’s shortcomings to light, including its infrastructure, policies and “willingness to act.”
“I don’t see how I could trust GNWT with another wildfire season or evacuation order,” he said.
“Through our time in Alberta, we’ve been thinking about staying in our current city as it gives so many more opportunities for our child. Alberta has also done more for the people of NWT than I could have ever expected.”
Other NWT residents similarly spoke of a loss of trust.
Heather Killingsworth said her evacuation experience has shifted her feelings about wanting to live in the North.
Killingsworth, who lives part-time in Yellowknife and part-time in the United States, was on her way to meet her partner, a nurse in Yellowknife, when the evacuation order went out. She re-routed her flight to Edmonton to meet her partner, who left the city by car.
Eight days into the evacuation, Killingsworth said she and her partner had still not received any support, despite going to the Edmonton Expo Centre multiple times to register as evacuees. She was told several times she would receive a call within 48 hours, but the call never came.
Killingsworth and her partner have been paying out of pocket for a hotel room in Leduc that will accept their three dogs.
“We just feel super let down by the Government of the NWT, almost to the point where I don’t even know if we really want to live there any more,” she said. “The NWT is not what we hoped it would be.”
Killingsworth said her partner is looking for a permanent place to live in the south, mostly because they worry what they experienced this year might happen again.
“It just doesn’t seem like the government up there really cares about what’s happening to us down here, so why live there?” she said.
A Hay River resident who asked to remain anonymous said she and her family are also, for the first time ever, seriously considering leaving the North.
The resident, who has lived in Hay River for six years, said she always thought she would call the North home.
“But with this most recent evacuation, and the GNWT pulling supports as fast as they announce them, we are strongly considering moving to Alberta,” she said.
The evacuations have taken a toll on her children, aged 12 and 7, as well.
“Both of my children are so on edge that even coverage of the hurricane in Florida has them asking about what if that happens here?” she said, adding that the youngest keeps asking them to avoid saying the “E” word – evacuate.
“I don’t know how many more natural disasters we can endure,” she said.
Samantha Marriott, an osteopathic therapist in Yellowknife, is questioning her life in the territory in part because costs are becoming too high.
Marriott runs her own business and the evacuation has been a major blow to her finances. With no income since she left the city and little support from the government, she still has bills to pay. That includes routine expenses that haven’t disappeared, such as mortgage payments, as well as costs associated with evacuating, which Marriott says cost her and her partner thousands of dollars.
“My savings are almost gone,” she said.
Marriott said the idea of moving elsewhere is appealing at this point.
She thinks the insecure situations people have been put through with the Covid-19 pandemic, and now wildfires, are making some consider what they can change.
In Marriott’s case, that might be closing her business. It might also mean relocating.
“Do I need to not go back where all of the expenses are so high, and only going to drastically increase after this, while supply still stays next to nothing?” she said.
“What’s kind-of the point any more, when all the hardships are getting that much harder, and we’re not getting as much of the benefits of living there?”
Not every resident has this outlook.
We also heard from Ben, who asked only to be identified by his first name and who is undeterred by recent events.
“I’m a ‘knifer through and through,” he said, referring to his Yellowknife home.
“It will take more than this to make me want to move back south.”
But Aaron Perrott said he is beginning to realize he feels more at home elsewhere.
Perrott has been living in the NWT for eight years and has worked across the North as a field instructor.
Before the evacuation order went out for Yellowknife, he and his wife decided to drive out of the city, seeing the writing on the wall.
“I put the word out looking for a place to stay,” he said in an email.
“A connection came up for an opportunity to stay in a cozy cabin in Haines Junction with our two cats. It’s a great little town, friendly folks, amazing hiking in the mountains. Whitehorse is close enough for resupplies.”
Perrott said he is halfway through the Environment and Natural Resources Technology program in Fort Smith, and when he graduates, he plans on looking for employment in the Yukon.
Although he said he has appreciated his time in the NWT and met some wonderful people, witnessing dysfunction and stagnation in some areas has been disheartening to him.
“Yukon seems more developed and progressive,” Perrott said, adding the territory is better connected via road networks and more proactive on wildfires.
It’s also still in the North.
“For me, all the hunting and fishing and camping opportunities, along with exploration and recreation, is a huge draw,” he said.
Struggling to leave
Amanda, who asked us to withhold her last name, has been wanting to move out of Hay River for years.
She has been in the town for four years, working as an accountant, and says living in the community has opened her eyes to how many people lack regular access to medical providers. A few years ago, she decided to change careers, switching from accounting to the healthcare field.
Amanda said evacuations in Hay River over the past two years have impeded her ability to leave and make the life changes she has been craving.
“I’ve been trying to relocate and sell my house,” she said.
But last year, when the community was hit by a flood, her house was damaged, so she couldn’t sell it.
When Hay River evacuated again in the spring, this time due to a wildfire, she decided she was going to move even if her house didn’t sell in the summer.
Amanda was a week away from relocating to Calgary for school when the latest evacuation order went out.
“My movers were coming August 18, and we were evacuated August 13,” she said in an email.
Amanda said the evacuations have taken a toll on her finances. A deal she had for someone to rent her house in Hay River is now in flux, so a mortgage payment likely won’t be covered. She also has a rental payment coming up for her new place in Calgary, among other expenses.
Despite these difficulties, Amanda said she would potentially like to return to the NWT one day, possibly to Hay River, Yellowknife or Fort Smith
She said it’s the isolation that draws her to the NWT.
“You can do whatever you want,” she said. “It’s freeing in the sense that you can just be yourself.”
Amanda said living in the NWT is not for the faint of heart.
“It is a challenge, but it can be such a rewarding challenge, I think. You can learn so much about yourself. You can grow. You can find out who you really are and what makes you tick,” she said.
Asked if the positives of living in the territory outweigh the negatives, Amanda said: “Jury’s still out on that one for me.”