A rainbow over evacuation flights at Yellowknife's airport in August 2023. Photo: Aaron Black
How could Yellowknife’s evacuation have been a better, safer experience for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents?
The NWT’s worst-ever wildfire season triggered a three-week evacuation of the territorial capital in August and September.
One non-profit that works closely with vulnerable residents, the Yellowknife Women’s Society, has already documented harrowing accounts of ways in which people fell through gaps in care amid the rush to vacate the city – and in the weeks that followed.
To learn more about the issues faced and the possible solutions, Cabin Radio interviewed the heads of two non-profits in Yellowknife and two in Calgary, the Alberta city that welcomed many NWT evacuees.
The organizations we spoke with offer some front-line services for people experiencing homelessness, addiction and mental health struggles. They worked with evacuees in hotels, on the streets and in shelters, supported transportation between locations, offered case management services and provided forms of emergency response.
We also reached out to the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, Calgary Emergency Management Agency, Indigenous leaders and the territorial government.
Yellowknife is not the first community to face a post-evacuation call for lessons to be learned. We also examined recommendations from Australia, where similar questions were asked after devastating bushfires in 2009 were followed by floods in 2010 and 2011.
So, what’s the consensus?
Community and communication
After those disasters more than a decade ago, the Australian state of Victoria published a policy in response to a public inquiry that set out how vulnerable people will be helped in emergencies.
Within that policy, the state noted that agencies who have existing relationships with vulnerable residents are crucial.
“Agencies funded to provide personal care, support and case management services to people living in the community have a key role in relation to the safety and welfare of clients,” the policy asserted.
The document tells Australian authorities to ensure existing relationships between agencies and people are used to “improve their safety and resilience through promoting personal emergency planning.”
This year, in Yellowknife, front-line workers say the same: existing communities should stay together.
That didn’t happen during the evacuation, though some attempts were made.
With the evacuation order about to take effect in mid-August, GNWT officials reached out to Yellowknife non-profits to request a list of their most vulnerable community members, workers said. The aim was for those community members to evacuate together with shelter staff.
Asked to identify who among the Yellowknife Salvation Army’s clients were most vulnerable, executive director Tony Brushett replied: “That’s easy. All of them.”
But the Salvation Army was told the roughly 100 people it helps could not all fly to safety together. Instead, they were divided into two groups.
The 40 or so people who use the Salvation Army’s in-house programs evacuated together to Calgary with Salvation Army staff. The remainder would evacuate “with the rest of the population,” Brushett said he was told.
Brushett says he asked a GNWT official what would happen to homeless people falling into that second group.
‘That is not my concern at this moment,” he says he was told.
Brushett said that exchange left “a very uncomfortable feeling … but then I had to recover quickly, because we still had to find a way to get our 40 in-house clients down south in a hurry.”
The Yellowknife Women’s Society was similarly asked to select which people should evacuate with them to Fort McMurray.
“To try and pick who can versus can’t come on the charter was really sad, to be honest,” said Zoe Share, deputy director at the society. “It was a really, really difficult task.”
Share says people should be given the option to travel together with extra supports in future emergencies, so they can stay together and front-line workers don’t have to turn people away.
“I felt like I had abandoned them,” said Share. “I felt, I guess, somewhat guilty in who I had chosen.”
On hearing vulnerable residents were on the way, outreach teams in Calgary headed to meet them – but didn’t know who would be landing where, which complicated things.
“If somebody is coming from a vulnerable situation, the last thing we want is folks in a more vulnerable situation,” said Charlene Wilson, senior director of programs at Calgary’s Alpha House Society, a non-profit that says it provides “safe and caring environments for individuals whose lives are affected by alcohol and other substance dependencies.”
“If somebody is coming, to be supported with services on this end, we should know,” said Wilson, whose team also ended up helping evacuees to reunite with loved ones.
“Communication,” Wilson said. “That’s the biggest piece to reduce any mishaps or folks slipping between the cracks.”
Share said that communication between NGOs and government agencies needs to be open and advanced, to maximize preparation time and the number of people who can stay together.
The NWT’s health authority told Cabin Radio it is inviting non-profits to share their feedback.
“We hope that the Yellowknife Women’s Society and all NGOs will participate in any after-action reviews that take place, so we can better understand the challenges they faced, so we may collectively better plan for future emergency events,” a statement from the health authority read.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government, which has been critical of the GNWT’s handling of the evacuation, did not respond to a request for comment.
To register or not to register
Should everyone have been placed on a list so people could be traced and helped?
The NWT government has said it did not track departing vulnerable people with the intention of following up on their well-being in Alberta or beyond.
“I don’t think, as people left, we asked about their housing status,” said Jay Boast, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Emergency Management Organization said in early September.
“We are very committed to making sure that everyone gets home. But we’re also cognizant that some people may choose not to go home… and that certainly is any individual’s right,” Boast said.
“It’s important we are careful that we are giving everyone the respect – or their individual responsibilities, their individual rights, and their individual needs — having that approach of trying not to be paternalistic about it.”
Jurisdiction was another crucial factor, said Robert Tordiff, an assistant deputy minister at Executive and Indigenous Affairs. The NWT has to play by provinces’ rules when evacuees are south of the border.
“We have to work with our hosts,” Tordiff said last month as efforts began to bring people home to Yellowknife.
“It’s through those relationships that we hope to reach the people that … are no longer in the hotel system,” he said, referring to people who had been told to leave by hotels concerned about their conduct.
Ultimately, Tordiff said the GNWT relied on the efforts of front-line workers to track and locate evacuees.
But that introduces privacy considerations.
In Alberta, front-line workers say they try to balance collecting data that improves services with the demands of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, commonly known as FOIP, that prohibits breaches of an individual’s right to privacy.
This limits the kinds of question workers can ask people.
“Best practice is gather the information needed for the services being provided and nothing more. That’s respecting the individuals coming through our doors,” said Cliff Wiebe, executive director at Calgary’s Salvation Army.
“Everyone has free will and a choice in these situations: to register or not to register.”
Even so, Wilson at the Alpha House Society said record-keeping is important when working with vulnerable communities. But she acknowledged: “The tricky part is FOIP.”
In the absence of a list, as the evacuation of Yellowknife dragged into multiple weeks, it became apparent that authorities were having difficulty tracing everyone who might need help.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society said NWT and Alberta officials did not provide a straight answer when the society requested information about Calgary hotel evictions, which would have been one way to help verify who was missing.
“Do you know who has been evicted from hotels? Who we’re looking for? No one ever responded,” said Shauna Morgan, a board member for the society. “I guess we can assume the answer was no, no one had kept track.”
In Australia, the state of Victoria established Vulnerable Persons Registers to store information about consenting residents identified as vulnerable. The data in VPRs is accessible to governments and agencies to “aid emergency planning and response, including potential evacuation.”
However, the registers haven’t been a perfect solution.
In a 2020 evaluation, the state found information in the registers could help prioritize assistance for people who need it, but sometimes data was inaccurate. Over time, the evaluation found, police use of the registers as a tool had “markedly declined.” If someone on a register got out of danger early, there was no formal way to tell emergency services, the evaluation stated, meaning resources could be wasted.
A perfect evacuation
Front-line workers stressed the importance of having reasonable expectations of government officials, while also ensuring time is taken to evaluate key decisions and promote accountability and transparency.
“We want a perfect evacuation and supports at the other end,” said Wiebe. “In this situation, it wasn’t perfect, but none are, and I think everyone really tried their best.”
“I think there’s always going to be room for improvement on any emergency or situational event that happens, that impacts people’s day-to-day,” said Wilson. “I don’t know if there is a blueprint for perfection here.”
The NWT government is, however, under pressure to set out exactly what planning actually existed ahead of the evacuation. A review is due to take place at both municipal and territorial levels, and there are calls for a broader inquiry.
“When people leave Yellowknife, how are we going to ensure their safety wherever they end up?” Share said, setting out a question any review must answer.
“It’s really important to try and incorporate that approach into as many government policies and processes as possible, because that’s the only way we’re going to minimize the harm or the negative consequences that people are going to face.
“People in those higher government roles, and especially elected officials, do need to be accountable for some actions and decisions that were made during this time.”
The Alberta Emergency Management Agency told Cabin Radio it is “always looking for ways to learn and improve our processes following a major incident,” and a review of its own will take place in the months ahead.
Among the people who accompanied its staff to Fort McMurray, the Yellowknife Women’s Society says it saw a model for how a future evacuation might look. Dozens of people stayed together at an oil sands facility, where the society says there were centralized wraparound supports.
Seventeen people in the Yellowknife Salvation Army’s care, determined to be the most vulnerable, stayed at Calgary’s Salvation Army. Six staff travelled with them to and from that shelter. Accommodation, meals and supports were available.
“People with mental health challenges… when you disrupt the continuity of the day-to-day routines, they find it very difficult to adjust,” said Wiebe.
“Simply by having a constant with them all along the way – the staff from Yellowknife, from the Salvation Army, familiar faces and names – that’s huge. It took a lot of effort and it really helped this group who had mental health issues.
“Sometimes people think there’s one solution that can be accessed by everybody, but I disagree. I think it’s very important that we have the right places for different people in their journeys.”