Chief of Dettah Edward Sangris in 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
The Dettah chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation is urging territorial and municipal governments not to delay the return of members to their traditional homeland.
“My heart aches as we witness the devastation that has unfolded, displacing our families, disrupting our way of life and challenging the very core of our existence,” Chief Edward Sangris said during a Thursday press conference.
While the bonds that connect Yellowknives Dene “remain unbreakable,” Sangris said, many members of the First Nation are in a “dire situation” as resources for evacuees dwindle.
“We are running out of options,” he said. “Unlike others, decades of colonialism and intergenerational trauma have stripped our people of the safety nets of deep savings, comprehensive insurance policies and stable salaries.”
Sangris said the evacuation has also disrupted members’ connection to the land, which he said is not only culturally important but also how people sustain themselves.
“The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated,” he said.
“We cannot and must not delay any further the return of the Yellowknives Dene to their rightful home within Chief Drygeese traditional territory.
“Let’s work hand in hand to find solutions, allocate resources, and expedite the safe return of all evacuated members of Yellowknife.”
Yellowknife, Ndılǫ and Dettah were ordered to evacuate late on August 16 as a wildfire burned to the west of the city. Many displaced residents are now in Alberta, while some have travelled to other provinces or elsewhere in the North.
Sangris, the outgoing Dettah chief, will soon leave his position after four terms in office. Chief-elect Ernest Betsina, elected two weeks ago, is due to assume the role in the near future.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Despite ongoing rumours about when people may be allowed to go home, officials have not yet released firm return dates for any evacuated NWT community.
The territorial government said on Wednesday it was pausing the recall of essential workers to Yellowknife because high winds could blow fires and smoke across highways along the route. Only a small number of healthcare workers are still invited back, and those staff are being flown in.
The return of essential staff and services is phase three in Yellowknife’s five-phase re-opening plan. Mayor Rebecca Alty has said the city was on the verge of giving residents a return date before phase three had to be put on hold.
“Like me, you’re probably feeling annoyed, upset, frustrated and many more emotions. But at the end of the day, we’re a remote community dealing with a challenging fire complex and we have to address the challenges that get thrown at us day by day, hour by hour,” she said at Thursday’s press conference.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is still there, but it’s just pushed a little further.”
Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, added safety is the priority when making decisions related to evacuations.
“I want to assure residents that planning for returning home is continuing,” he said, pointing to development of a flight registration process as an example.
“The universal truth is that we are one day closer to being able to go home.”
Boast said territorial staff were working to connect evacuees with the social supports they need. He said staff are also developing a database to help evacuees reunite with family members and friends spread out across the country.
According to NWT Fire, the wildfire situation in the territory remains severe with hot, dry conditions and strong winds forecast in the southern NWT for the coming days.
While the Ingraham Trail and Behchokǫ̀/Yellowknife wildfires are deemed “being held,” the wildfire agency said risks remain, and many other wildfires in the territory are still burning out of control.