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What the evacuation taught us: Harm reduction works

Zoe Share, Deputy Director, Yellowknife Women's Society

As we all settle back into our daily routines, I have slowly begun to reflect on the evacuation – how it played out, how different people experienced it, and what this moment in time can teach us. There are many lessons to be learned if we are all willing to listen with open minds and a dash of humility. For myself, the evacuation has made one thing incredibly clear, and that is that harm reduction works.

Harm reduction, as the term implies, refers to minimizing harm and increasing safety as much as possible. Wearing a helmet when you ride a bike or putting filters on cigarettes are both examples of harm reduction. In the field of substance use and addictions, harm reduction means reducing the negative consequences associated with drug and alcohol use.

Yellowknife’s evacuation order was, in a sense, an exercise in harm reduction. The aim was to increase the safety of residents. But what considerations were given of the harms awaiting evacuees once they left Yellowknife? What considerations were given to ensure that everyone would be as safe as possible wherever they ended up?

You can read more about how things played out throughout the evacuation from the Yellowknife Women’s Society’s perspective on our website. While we failed to keep all YKWS service-users together and provide necessary support, we were thinking about the path to other harms awaiting many evacuees. In the week leading up to Yellowknife’s evacuation order we began to question what the plan was for some of our most vulnerable community members. We wanted to be able to provide our service-users and residents with extra support. We also knew we would need to advocate for these supports to those in charge, because experience has taught us that those in positions of power rarely understand how situations play out on the ground.

We did succeed in advancing one plan for some of our service-users, which has illustrated the benefits of a harm reduction model and centralized wraparound supports.

On August 17, 2023, I boarded a charter flight headed to Fort McMurray. Also onboard were staff from YKWS and the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, and 47 individuals who represented shelter-users and residents of various YKWS housing programs. We landed in Fort McMurray and took a bus to a work camp outside of town, to stay in group accommodations with the idea of continuing to support the complex needs of those we were traveling with. Everyone was assigned their own room, which included a private bathroom, and we all enjoyed access to three meals a day and a dining hall that was open 24/7.

Among those with us were residents of the Spruce Bough Supported Living program. This program was prioritized for the charter flight in part because of the Managed Alcohol Program (MAP), which is available for those with severe alcohol dependency. At our group accommodations, we continued the MAP for all current participants and offered it to those not currently on the program but at considerable risk of withdrawal-induced seizures. Many individuals began to thrive in an environment where they had all their basic needs met, had access to wraparound supports, and felt a sense of community. This was housing first in action – not as a program, but as a set of principles that recognizes that everyone deserves safe and adequate housing, that housing is a human right, and that no one needs to meet readiness requirements (such as being sober) prior to being housed. Through this lens we can see that housing is our most effective harm reduction tool.

As the days turned into weeks, our small but mighty team of staff continued to support the daily needs of those we brought with us. These supports ranged from securing clothing donations and purchasing toiletries, helping people connect with financial support, assisting with prescription transfers and other medical needs, and sitting and listening when someone just needed to talk. And it wasn’t just the staff helping the service-users; residents began helping where they could as well, checking in with each other as well as with the staff to make sure we were taking breaks and eating some food.

We encountered challenges, of course. Some people chose to leave the group accommodations, either permanently or for a brief period, to stay in town and use drugs and/or alcohol. But we were able to have open and honest conversations with them ahead of time, to inform them of the risks of an unknown drug supply in a new city, and to send them with harm reduction kits (including Narcan and condoms). Equipped with these supports, we were able to create a safer environment for everyone involved.

Our evacuation experience shows how, despite the gaping holes in our government systems, people from different sectors came together united by their dedication to providing non-judgmental support to our community members who need it the most. We had a common goal of providing a safe environment for as many people as possible, and we did that by meeting people where they were at and fostering a sense of community and connection.

At the very basis of our work is the inherent belief that all people deserve dignity and support, regardless of their personal circumstances. If our structures and systems were embedded with a harm reduction approach, it would be obvious that these wraparound supports are necessary. In the context of the evacuation, it would have been obvious that we needed to be ready to provide these supports through a model that was person-centred and founded in mutual respect and connection. If we already valued and championed a harm reduction approach, many of these supports would have already naturally existed, or they would have been quick to be implemented.

Time has passed and we cannot change what has already been done. But we can reflect and vow to do better in the future.

Harm reduction works. It saves lives and has the potential to support so many people if we commit to taking meaningful action rooted in its principles, and advocate for safety for all, no matter the circumstance.

What the evacuation taught us Harm reduction works
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