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Ivan Russell wins national award for NWT emergency management

Ivan Russell. Photo: Submitted
Ivan Russell. Photo: Submitted

Ivan Russell missed the Ottawa ceremony for his Emergency Management Exemplary Service Award. He was an evacuee at the time.

“There was a bit of irony in that, for sure,” he acknowledged.

“I had originally planned to go. I had made arrangements, but I was evacuated along with the rest of Yellowknife and I was in Edmonton looking after my family. I couldn’t justify leaving them to go and get an award.”

The ceremony, already delayed multiple times itself, recognized Russell for a 2022 Outstanding Contribution to Emergency Management award.

A biography of Russell on the federal awards’ website notes he held leading roles in NWT emergency management for more than a decade, forming a key part of the territory’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2021 spring floods.

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“It feels wonderful” to be recognized, he told Cabin Radio.

“It’s not just me. I had some excellent people working with me and for me, and managing all this stuff,” he said.

“You’re never alone in emergency management. You’re always a team and the credit goes to a lot of the people in the GNWT that are very dedicated and professional at what they do.”

A member of the military for more than 30 years, Russell ended a posting to Yellowknife in the early 2000s by switching to emergency planning for the Department of Health and Social Services, having completed a master’s degree at Royal Roads in disaster and emergency management.

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His award arrives at a critical juncture for the territory’s emergency management, as the focus gradually shifts to reviewing how this summer’s simultaneous evacuations of Yellowknife and other communities were handled.

When he moved to the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs in late 2013 to join the territory’s emergency management organization, Russell’s introduction to that group was the 2014 wildfire season – up till this summer, the worst the NWT had faced.

Ivan Russell volunteering during the 2022 Hay River flood response. Photo: Submitted
Ivan Russell volunteering during the 2022 Hay River flood response. Photo: Submitted

Russell, who retired before this year’s extraordinary string of disasters, says 2014 exhibited some important differences that made it an easier season to manage than 2023.

“In 2014, it was manageable,” he said, “primarily because we moved from one issue to the next and it wasn’t compounded in multiple disasters occurring at the same time.”

This summer, by contrast, the NWT had one week in which more than half a dozen communities came under evacuation orders within days or even hours of each other.

That’s a “much more complex type of response and much more difficult to deal with,” said Russell, who still performs occasional consultancy work for the GNWT in retirement.

Evacuating the territorial capital, too, extended beyond what Russell said emergency managers had previously imagined possible.

“I never thought it would lead to an evacuation of Yellowknife,” he admitted.

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“That was one of those worst-case scenarios in the back of my mind, and it came true this time. I’m not sure what else can happen up here.”

Russell said the concept of Yellowknife needing to be evacuated had been discussed in his time in GNWT emergency management, but he did not recall being involved in “any detailed planning” for that eventuality.

He says the review of what happened this summer, that evacuation included, will become a key document for the territory – and points out that the current, seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of emergencies striking the NWT is getting in the way of that ability to study and learn.

“There’s been no time for reflection and incorporating lessons learned and all those things,” he said of this summer and recent years. “You get one major event, and another, and another, right? And it’s very difficult to do a lot of that reflection and understanding of what happened, and what worked, and what didn’t work and so on.”

Reviews of 2023 also need to “provide understanding to the public and accountability for spending public money in dealing with emergencies,” he said. “There’s a responsibility there.”

Russell added, though, that individual residents also need to understand where their own responsibilities lie.

“One of the biggest challenges in emergency management is to get people to accept the personal responsibility for your own emergency situations, and to be prepared for what is likely to occur in your area. That has been a consistent challenge that I’ve seen over the years,” he said.

“There’s been a great deal of awareness around wildfires, the impacts of climate change, flooding – our top hazards here are wildfires and floods, and both of those are predicted to become more severe and more frequent in the future due to climate change.

“People need to pay attention to that, maintain awareness of that risk, and be prepared for it.”