This is the evacuation story of an organization—the Yellowknife Women’s Society. It’s a long one (buckle in!) and it’s not over yet. It touches upon, but cannot begin to do justice to the evacuation experiences of individuals, many of whom withstood mistreatment, racism, abuse, false hope, despair, and lasting trauma during this time, while others experienced care and solidarity. We hope to give those individuals another platform via our website to tell their own stories, in their own words.
This timeline tells the story of how a system treated vulnerable, underhoused people—most of whom are Indigenous—during an emergency. While many recognized from the beginning that this group should have been kept together in a safe place with staff supports throughout the evacuation, the system chose instead to scatter a large portion of the NWT’s underhoused population across several large unfamiliar southern cities, with no tracking, no supports. To give one snapshot, by August 30th, 72 people from the NWT had accessed front-line services in Calgary; 58 had spent at least one night sleeping on the floor of a shelter.
Some of those people—residents or participants in our facilities/programs—made contact with YKWS early on, but contact was lost. We had little tangible help to offer anyways when folx would call—no safe bed for them to sleep in, no protection from assaults, no information about how to get home—beyond empathy and encouraging words. Some have not yet come back to Yellowknife, and we don’t know where they are. We understand that at least two have died in Alberta. The majority have returned to YK, some with additional scars and traumas that cannot be erased.
You will notice some common themes in this timeline:
Over and over, YKWS was assured that the authorities/governments are taking care of the situation, plans are being made, processes are underway. In most cases, there was no follow-through. Sometimes we could see government staff keeping very busy—a flurry of meetings, calls, etc. But in very few cases did we see any of this result in actual effective help being provided to the most vulnerable people.
When not being assured that the GNWT was on top of everything, we were told the opposite, that the GNWT has no jurisdiction to do anything in Alberta, and in any case we should not expect much because GNWT staff are evacuees too.
When YKWS tried to make things happen ourselves, we were told multiple times to stand down, or to start again by going through the “proper channels”—which usually led to the same place, sending emails into a void with no response.
It strikes us that throughout the evacuation, the fact that YK residents were ending up on the streets of Calgary and Edmonton seemed to be viewed as simply inevitable, something to be observed/tallied (only occasionally, and always incompletely). No clear interventions to prevent this were ever identified by anyone as necessary or urgent. As if it was just something that happened, no one’s responsibility or fault.
And now, as it appears GNWT re-entry efforts are wrapping up, there is a narrative seeping into common discourse that – oh well, we tried our best, I guess if some of the homeless population
wants to stay in Alberta, “this is their choice”. Or “maybe they are better off in Alberta anyways – they are inevitably going to be homeless wherever they go, so better they stay homeless in Alberta which has a larger system, more programs, etc. to deal with people like this.”
THIS SITUATION WAS NOT AND IS NOT INEVITABLE – the fact that our fellow community members are now on the streets of big cities in Alberta was entirely predictable, and preventable.
The authorities in the NWT took already vulnerable people – and put them in exponentially more dangerous situations in an unfamiliar place. That happened, due to no choice or fault of those vulnerable people. While we understand that the intention of this forced relocation was to save all residents from grave immediate danger from the wildfires, what was missing was an equal intention to understand, analyze and then reduce harms/dangers we were sending people into. The effect of this oversight should remind us of the historical pattern of colonial violence towards Indigenous peoples.
There are many reasons for these oversights and failures that can certainly be acknowledged – the unprecedented situation, the fear, the chaos, the jurisdictional overlaps and gaps, etc., etc., etc. But we cannot dwell on excuses. We need to acknowledge the limitations and challenges, but then move towards action and solutions, to make sure we will do much, much better in the future.
**NOTE that in the timeline below, names of those outside YKWS have been replaced with letters. We want to highlight that our intent is not to assign blame to any particular individuals – it was the overall system that failed the vulnerable underhoused population. Many who work within the system went far above and beyond their job descriptions to try to help. As you will read below, some staff gave us information or promises that turned out to be false, and we imagine that they were likely just repeating what they were told by someone higher up, and they likely felt horrible afterwards knowing that their promises or assurances turned out to be empty. The system failed them too.
Timeline of the Evacuation, from the perspective of Yellowknife Women’s Society staff and Board members:
Mon, August 14: YKWS staff discussed internally what we needed to do/find out if there was some sort of shelter in place/evacuation in Yellowknife. We agreed that sheltering in place wouldn’t be feasible in our buildings (i.e. can’t have staff working at the shelter and “sheltering in place” at the same time), we decided next steps were to reach out to NTHSSA and City of Yellowknife contacts to ask what plans were being made relating to our programs, and with plans to tell them that if sheltering in place or moving to other spots in the city, we would need plans for accommodating our service-users. Also on this date, we distributed an emergency packing list to managers to then give to service-users, and encouraged/helped people to start packing emergency bags. Also we began making plans for emergency kits at our buildings.
Mon Aug 14 (cont): YKWS Executive Director (Renee)--who was about to go on vacation leave to Edmonton with her family at the time--emailed 2 contacts at the GNWT (NTHSSA), asking if there were any plans on their end for Spruce Bough residents if there were to be an evacuation or sheltering in place. (No email response)
Tues August 15: YKWS Managers Meeting to touch base across programs. Plans were still largely focused on the possibility of sheltering in place (or having to move everyone to somewhere within Yellowknife, like the Multiplex…). We created a spreadsheet to have all client info together, and started to update as much as possible with phone numbers, emergency contacts, etc.
Tues August 15 (cont): Renee had a call from NTHSSA and we were under the impression from that call that NTHSSA was arranging an evacuation plan for their long term care folks that would include Spruce Bough residents. The impression we had was that Hay River/Fort Smith long term care patients were departing at 9am Wednesday, and that Yellowknife long term care including Spruce Bough would be leaving later on Wed or on Thurs. Renee and Zoe had Women’s Centre and Spruce Bough residents all packed with evacuation to-go bags, had made contact with key staff to see who was available to travel with residents, ordered extra prescriptions and alcohol, etc, to be ready to go. We started some of these preparations on Monday, Aug 14.
Tues August 15 (late evening): Renee spoke with C* (NTHSSA) regarding a charter for some of our clients; C* requested a list of our most high-needs residents and potential staff. Renee then emailed C* a list of 25 high needs clients and 6 staff that could go on the charter.
Wednesday Aug 16 (early morning): Zoe (YKWS Deputy Director) added to the email to NTHSSA:
I just wanted to add that while these are our "most vulnerable" clients, I really think that we need to try and push for as many people as possible to be evacuated. As I'm sure you understand, it was very difficult to pick out the highest need clients.
I'm planning to meet with H* and M* [outreach nurse] this morning, so we can all work on this together and hopefully get as many people out as possible. In total, across our 3 housing programs, we have approximately 93 service-users. That would be including the 25 already identified by Renee, and probably has some overlap with Adult Services clients/day shelter users as well.
C* (NTHSSA) responded that she was hoping to get some direction soon and would be in touch.
Wed Aug 16, 9am - Katy (YKWS Board chair) and Zoe have a call with C* (NTHSSA); C* told us that we needed to get arrangements in place to get Spruce Bough residents out of Yellowknife immediately - ideally that night. She gave us a name to arrange travel and thought that Renee had the name at a camp (operated by a private corporation called Civeo) we should reach out to. Katy and Zoe were asked to write up a proposal that be put forward for approval. From that meeting we realized: 1) NTHSSA didn’t have a plan for evacuating YKWS participants/residents, or at least, that whatever their plan was, it didn’t include us; 2) we needed to leave immediately; 3) we had to arrange it on our own and write up a budget at the same time as actually organizing it.
Wed Aug 16, 12pm: We sent what we had so far for the proposal to C* . The list of “most vulnerable” included 21 Spruce Bough residents, up to 18 day shelter users including those on the wait-list for Spruce Bough, and 10 from the Women’s Centre (mix of residents and drop-in shelter users)—for a total of 49—plus 6 YWKS staff, and 3 NTHSSA staff.
Note, the day shelter clients were included in our group with the justification that they were on the Spruce Bough waitlist, because we understood that there was no other plan in place for day shelter users, and they were not to be evacuated with NTHSSA’s long term care patients.
Wed Aug 16, 3pm: Text from C* to Katy and Zoe saying “I think it’s approved.” YKWS carried on with arrangements, despite having no email/documented record of budget approval.
Later in the day, concern was expressed by GNWT that the Outreach Nurse from NTHSSA was included in the proposal, because she was not licensed to practice in Alberta, and therefore would not be allowed to join the group. YKWS had to resubmit the proposal with the outreach nurse omitted. Later the nurse was told she could come on the charter to help with getting clients there but would be a “volunteer”.
Wed Aug 16, 7 pm: Evacuation order issued. Zoe (YKWS Deputy Director) was sitting in a room with 2 NTHSSA frontline staff. One of them called D* (NTHSSA) to discuss what this meant for the day shelter - NTHSSA wanted it to stay open as long as possible, ideally until the Friday - and then someone asked D* what this meant for all the clients needing to evacuate that weren’t planned to be on the next morning’s charter, and stating that we should try to keep everyone together, bring them to a common location, and continue to provide supports. The call was on speaker, and Zoe chimed in to say that it sounded like the Civeo group in Ft Mac had another larger camp that might be available. D* responded that “no, MACA will be taking care of the evacuation.”
Wed Aug 16, evening: C* emailed out a script being used by NTHSSA for long-term care clients to inform guardians of the details of the evacuation in case we wanted to use it. Also on the email was Tony Brushett (Salvation Army) and Lynn Foley (Inclusion NWT). Tony responded asking about next steps for evacuating the rest of our clients that wouldn’t be on the next morning’s specially organized charter, and asking if that info would come from NTHSSA. D* replied that MACA would be responsible for the overall community evacuation and that there would be accessible transport options.
Wed Aug 16, 8pm: Confirmed the charter for 10am on Thurs the 17th, going to a camp operated by Civeo, north of Fort McMurray with transportation arranged from airport to Hudson.
Didn’t have transportation on the ground in Yellowknife, so we arranged to do that with YKWS staff and resources. NTHSSA frontline staff also helped rally up day shelter clients to bring to the airport. Huge help from volunteers Ryan, Tom, and Mike.
Thursday August 17: Spruce Bough evacuation charter departed at 11:30ish and arrived around 1:30. Some doses were missed (Managed Alcohol Program) due to the travel, but it was very helpful to have the outreach nurse present to monitor for withdrawal and give some alcohol doses to those who needed it. One individual had a seizure as they were getting off the plane in Fort Mac, they were taken to hospital for the night.
There were some issues when the group arrived at the camp - the camp is a dry facility, and during the initial arrangements YKWS had communicated to one person with the company our needs around the Managed Alcohol Program, but that didn’t get passed onto the on-site person or the camp we actually wound up at (this company is a big chain). So that caused some initial struggles on the ground and we were initially worried we could be asked to leave due to our complex needs - not just the MAP but also cannabis use.
We still had the idea that many Women’s Centre participants and day shelter clients would likely be better off being together and supported like the Spruce Bough group, and that maybe we could fly those left in YK to Fort McMurray, and fly or bus those in Calgary up to the Hudson, with the support of NTHSSA. We talked to NTHSSA about this, but were told they couldn’t help organize this and didn’t know where their clients or our clients were by that point.
Friday August 18: Having stayed on at the Hudson camp despite her “volunteer” status, the outreach nurse reached out to the Registered Nurses’ Association of NT/NU to explain the situation and ask for help/advice. They responded right away and connected her with the College of Nurses of Alberta, who was able to issue her an emergency practice permit for free, on Sat Aug 19.
Saturday August 19: The problem of staffing (lack of) became urgent at the Hudson camp along with cannabis use. We started to be concerned that we would be asked to leave the camp. In terms of staffing, Zoe and team needed relief. Katy (YKWS Chair) looks up contacts within Alberta Health Services to ask for help. In the meantime - on Aug 19 two additional YKWS staff arrived (driving) at the Hudson camp to help out. On Aug 20, a third YKWS staff person flew from Calgary to join the team. On Aug 21, two more YKWS staff arrived by road, along with three volunteers (family members).
By this point, our attention was also turning to the fact that we had no news on the whereabouts of about 60 participants in our programs (Women’s Centre, Women’s Shelter, Housing First, etc). YKWS had kept a list of these participants, including any information we had to help locate them, including: birthdates for some, cell numbers for about half, emergency contacts such as family members for some, and if we had any information on where they might have been sent—we knew of about 15 that were sent to Calgary, and for a handful, we had names of hotels they were assigned to the first night.
Sat Aug 19: Zoe found out via the NTHSSA staff that they had started a list of their day shelter clients and what evacuation centre they had registered in. We reached out to NTHSSA asking if we could get similar information on which hotels our participants had been assigned to, but didn’t hear back. (We later found out that there was never in fact any coordinated tracking system for the vulnerable population between NTHSSA and evacuation centres; it was simply frontline staff noting down on an ad hoc basis anything they found out from calls they were receiving from clients).
Katy (YKWS Board Chair) was in Calgary, so thought she would just go visit the evacuation registration centre and ask. At that stage, there were limited supports at the evacuation centre, and it was busy with evacuees still arriving. There were a few people sitting outside the hotel who were known to YKWS from downtown but who were not our participants, and in chatting with them found out they a) had no ID b) had no debit cards or money c) no cab money or transportation options d) no toiletries e) couldn’t eat except at the hotel meal times d) might have been struggling with managing some addictions and e) were being watched closely by security. There were clearly extra security guards present and did not appear to be extra supports on site yet like social workers, wellness workers, gift cards, snacks, or essential items.
Sat Aug 19 overnight: One of the people that Katy had met outside the reception centre, “Darlene” (name changed), started calling Katy, she had been kicked out of her hotel. Katy tried to help her get back to the reception centre with directions and help over the phone. The reception centre wouldn’t give her another hotel room - they turned her out on the street in the night. Katy contacted Calgary’s “HELP” Team (the street outreach van), which we hope helped Darlene get to the City’s Drop In centre (largest shelter), but they could not confirm this with Katy due to privacy concerns.
Sunday August 20: We hadn’t heard anything on staffing relief, and nothing on lists of whereabouts of program participants. Feeling a sense of panic, Katy sent an email to the Premier, Minister of Health, and Minister of MACA expressing that panic and asking for the following: a) someone from their offices to speak with Civeo about asking for a break on the no-cannabis rule at the Hudson camp in light of the situation b) the name of a GNWT contact to help us find our program participants; and c) the name of a GNWT contact who was managing vulnerable population support.
Minister Julie Green responded right away, saying she and the Premier were worried about the same things, and that her staff was “putting together a workplan.” She said she copied all of her departmental staff, presumably so they could follow up. No one ever followed up with our organization on the workplan.
Sun Aug 20: We spent a lot of the day and evening on the phone with Darlene who was not in a good state. She had been sleeping rough, was afraid of the shelters, had been assaulted/attacked. The registration centre would not assign her to a new hotel, and she couldn’t get around the city of Calgary.
Sun Aug 20: We connected with a GNWT staff person to try and find out what was going on as we assumed the workplan Minister Green referenced would have landed with her. It had not but she said she’d look into it.
Monday August 21: The Spruce Bough group could not stay at the Hudson camp any longer; we needed to make a decision on where to move to that day. We reached out to NTHSSA for help/advice and to direct us to an Alberta Health contact who could help us make an informed decision about another location, as we are unfamiliar with Alberta and were at that point, relying on the advice of a corporation specializing in work camps rather than wellness or supported living. We then found out that our main contact from NTHSSA up to that point, C* , who had been trying to help as much as she could, was actually not supposed to be working with us, she had been directed to step away from helping us, and needed to be off in any case taking care of a family matter. We confirmed a plan to move from Hudson to a different camp at Athabasca and hope for the best, since we didn’t really have any other options and did not receive any re-direction to Alberta Health for advice.
Tuesday August 22: Growing increasingly concerned, and having not received practical follow up from Minister Green’s office, Premiers office, or any staffers regarding the workplan, Katy reached out again to ask about the workplan lead, and to ask for some new things from that level including: 1) a contact at Alberta Health Services to arrange more staffing at the Fort Mac camp; 2) a connection to a City of Calgary representative to help us find our program participants; and 3) a GNWT contact with Income Assistance, to help us troubleshoot IA deposit challenges.
Tues Aug 22, later on: We received a text from a GNWT colleague with what appeared to be a forwarded message that said, amongst other things: “The most effective means for YKWS to address its concerns is through its contacts at NTHSSA. We have staff working on these issues, and a protocol established through AEMA. Alternative communication avenues are likely to create delays, as we will have to navigate through multiple simultaneous conversations.”
This was maddening. We did not have an established/designated contact with NTHSSA, since we had just been told C* had only been helping us informally and was now out of contact. We were now trying to get things done in Alberta, fast – we needed logistical help immediately dealing with Alberta facilities and Alberta contacts to help make that happen, and we needed more staff ASAP who were prepared and licensed to work in Alberta. We also needed immediate support to establish contacts in Calgary to find and assist our participants and others who were contacting us in states of crisis.
Also Tues Aug 22: Two GNWT-HSS staff plus a summer student were flown to help support participants at the Civeo camp in Fort McMurray. Later, from the evening of Sunday Aug 27 to Aug 30, the YK Day Shelter manager (NTHSSA) was also present to provide support.
Also Tues Aug 22: D* from NTHSSA reached out: “Just wanted to confirm if there is anything further needed now that space has been identified? I understand there have been some questions to the Minister so we have been asked to check in to see whether there is anything else needed in terms of support to action this plan?”
Anything else?? How about all the things we’ve been asking for and gotten no help with? Katy responded by sending, for the umpteenth time, our full list of needs—more staff and connections to Alberta Health Services, help in locating and supporting our participants in Calgary, Elder / cultural wellness staff and other relief staff at the Civeo camp, etc. etc.
Wednesday August 23: D* (NTHSSA) responded to this list of requests, by sending us a link to a Cabin Radio article called “supports for evacuees”.
Wed Aug 23: Minister’s Green’s office followed up from Katy’s two emails to give us the name of a person to contact with Income Assistance. Other contacts were not provided.
Wed Aug 23: Zoe received an email from X*, from Housing NWT, which is the main funder of the Women’s Centre - This email was the first time we received any communication from Housing NWT. It read:
Hope you are all safe and doing well. I am reaching out for some help. I have been asked by NWT as well as AB to find out where our homeless clients have gone. This morning I found out that clients have been accessing shelters in Calgary and one somehow ended up in Whitehorse. Does Salvation Army and YKWS have a list of clients that were supporting during the evacuation and do you know where they all are ?
Is there anyone in Calgary that can provide supports to our vulnerable people while they are down there? We are being notified that many of them have been asked to leave the hotels due to their substance use and fighting and many are now wandering the streets of Calgary. If there is anything you all could help me with please let me know.
X* also sent out a Teams meeting invite for Aug 24, which included YKWS, Salvation Army, and YWCA, and the Hay River shelter. Zoe’s response to X*’s email:
To be honest, the fact that Housing NWT/the GNWT is checking in on this only now, a week after the evacuation order, is disappointing to say the least.
When it became apparent that there was a likelihood that some sort of evacuation would be necessary, either within Yellowknife as we were continuously told, or to leave the city, YKWS also reached out to ask what plans were being made for people experiencing homelessness. We were given the same answer, that this population would be grouped in with the larger community. We then worked to secure a charter flight and accommodations for some of our clients, but could not take everyone. Even after the official evacuation order was given late on Aug 16, I was in the room when it was suggested to NTHSSA staff on the phone that the homeless population needs to be evacuated together and set up with supports at their final destination. We were told no, that MACA would be in charge of coordinating the evacuation, and that they would not take this suggestion.
In the first days after evacuating, I received numerous calls from clients who ended up in Calgary, upset and confused as to why I abandoned them and left them behind in Yellowknife while I hopped on the charter to Ft McMurray to help support some of our most high-needs clients (especially those from Spruce Bough). I understand why they feel this way, but it is also not fair that I have to answer to these questions, when I feel YKWS overall was left to figure this out much on our own (as I'm sure other NGOs were as well).
We have worked to keep track of our service-users in Calgary and find out where they are as much as possible, and try to support them as much as possible. It has been a challenge. Renee Sanderson and one of our board members, Lindsay, have been doing a lot of this outreach work to track down people and let them know we are still here and want to support them as best we can.
As Tony said, and I agree - putting people experiencing homelessness and addictions/mental health issues into various hotel rooms scattered across Calgary and Winnipeg was not a great way to do things. In short, what exactly did everyone expect would happen?
Thursday August 24: Zoe joined Teams meeting with X* from Housing NWT, some Salvation Army staff were also on the call. X* apologized for not being in contact with us sooner, but put a lot of emphasis on the fact that no one had reached out to her until this point to ask her to do any work related to tracking vulnerable populations. X* made a lot of promises to “do better” by keeping NGOs in the loop and being transparent, and her main idea for accomplishing this was promising to report back to us about meetings she was scheduled to have with her DM, ADM, and Director as well as with Alberta Homelessness Group. She also followed up later that day to say she had emailed B*, head of GNWT Emergency Management Organization’s “Essential Social Services” team, asking to create a subcommittee within the EMO that included NGOs to provide input on re-entry planning.
NOTE: X* later forwarded us an email showing her email to B* requesting the subcommittee, and also asking for an update to send to NGOs regarding return plans and how we will be supported. The email thread shows B* responding about 5 mins after, stating simply “It is unlikely that a committee that includes NGOs will be struck. However, I will forward this request to the appropriate EMO staff.”
Thurs Aug 24: We spent this day organizing the taxi vouchers for Calgary, and then the Calgary shuttle bus between the evacuation centre, various hotels and key city facilities.
Friday Aug 25 - Sunday Aug 27: We connected with program participants as best as possible, and through personal connections in the city of Calgary, established connections between YKWS and the Calgary area shelters on our own.
Monday August 28: Via our personal connections established with the Calgary shelter EDs, we were connected to Doug Borch “Strategy Lead at the City of Calgary” who was in charge of managing the vulnerable population in Calgary during this emergency. Katy requested a meeting with Doug, who then decided it would be best to expand the meeting by inviting other Calgary and Alberta emergency management staff, as well as various GNWT agencies, and other YK shelters.
Wednesday August 30: It became clear there was little/no coordination happening between NTHSSA, Housing NWT, MACA, EMO and the City. We were getting different information from different avenues, and we were getting overwhelmed with requests from different people all looking for the same information (eg. list of essential workers; list of participants “missing”). After we had already emailed lists to all of these, Zoe still got a call from the City of Yellowknife on Sept 1 asking us to complete their online form for essential workers. Zoe asked if we needed to fill this out as well as send our list to the EMO; they didn’t know.
Wed Aug 30: Virtual meeting organized and hosted by Doug Borch with the City of Calgary, that Shauna (YKWS Board member) attended on behalf of YKWS (Shauna arriving late to these efforts as she had just returned from a canoe trip and driven to Alberta upon her return). In attendance were the Calgary Emergency Management team, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army and Day Shelter from YK, and various GNWT departments (Housing, HSS, etc). Also in attendance was B* from the EMO.
To our shock, this appeared to be the first time anyone on the call from the NWT had met any of the Calgary or Alberta representatives. This was a full 2 weeks after the evacuation order. It also only came about because we organized it directly with Calgary, who then invited GNWT.
This call also appeared to be the first time info was shared with anyone in the NWT (GNWT or YK shelter operators), about stats that had been collected by Calgary shelters since the first few days of the evacuation - we were told 72 people from the NWT had accessed front-line services in Calgary, 58 had spent at least 1 night on the floor of a shelter (starting from at least 9 days earlier).
There was discussion about how we could locate or make contact with program participants, how YK residents in Calgary could reach out to GNWT or YK NGOs for support. Doug gave options for YK shelters such as YKWS to send lists of clients to him (Calgary central agency), or reach out to Calgary shelters directly (he provided contacts), for them to cross-reference their lists. Privacy concerns could be set aside in cases of “emergencies” in order to quickly locate people on the street, like if there was a death in the family they should be notified of (… it was not clear what about the evacuation itself did not constitute a personal emergency for most or all of the underhoused evacuees). Zoe pointed out that Calgary shelters could be asking for consent at time of contact to share names/location with YKWS and other NWT service providers, at the time of first contact when folx are trying to access care, as opposed to putting the onus on them to call YKWS.
The Director of the YK Day Shelter, asked the Calgary team to send their master list of service providers and supports in Calgary, as she was getting lots of calls from folx who don't know where to get help. This appeared to be the first time such a master list of Calgary supports was circulated to NWT service providers, including GNWT.
B* from GNWT EMO said that GNWT was trying to find staff who would volunteer to be redeployed to help out on Calgary streets to lead people towards resources and services. Zoe expressed shock that it had taken 2 weeks for the GNWT to begin this process.
YKWS and Salvation Army urged that re-entry flights for the vulnerable population be scheduled for later flights to give time for shelter facilities and staff to be back up and running in YK. The Calgary team reassured us that they absolutely understand this, and the approach to re-entry will be very thoughtful, staged, organized, safe - they will work closely with CEMA and the GNWT, as well as AEMA. They understood there were many folx missing IDs, could be intoxicated, would need supports throughout flights, etc.
Friday September 1: City announced re-entry on Sept 4 and essential service re-entry starting Sept 2.
Fri Sept 1: Shauna followed up with Doug at City of Calgary to ask: 1) Now that we are in touch with Calgary shelters to try to make contact with our participants, what should we tell them - how will they get on flights? When? How will they get there? Will there be support workers on planes with them? 2) Will the flight schedules be arranged so that vulnerable population arrives later in
YK, as requested? 3) Has anyone been keeping track of numbers of hotel evictions or when people have left hotels, can we cross-reference with our participant lists? 4) Is there a Managed Alcohol Program in Calgary that folx could access on a short term basis? Response from Doug on Sept 2: “your questions are exactly how we’re starting our morning in the EOC. We’re heading into a room with a very large white board and will be working closely with GNWT and AEMA friends to identify and map the oodles of details to get folks home safely. And importantly, to stay safe while waiting, this will not be a simple or fast process, given the overall numbers. Best I can say is standby, knowing there are many gerbils on many wheels running furiously. And for your more vulnerable folks who have found their way to shelters, we have already talked with shelter leaders about needing customized processes to get to, engage and then move folks. It’s a full court press from the homeless sector perspective.”
After receiving no further response, Shauna prompted Doug on Sept 3 about answers, and he responded on Sept 4 saying: “I’ll suggest you check with B* as the GNWT ESS Chief, answers to many of your questions are in development and best coordinated through the right chains… process and structure lie with GNWT…” We were back where we started.
Also on Sept 1: Shauna also forwarded these same questions to D* , about how flights would be organized and when, what instructions we could give to our participants if we reached them - D* promised to forward along all these questions to the EMO. Never heard back from B* or D* or anyone on this topic.
Also Sept 1 - Shauna sent B* an email in follow up to the meeting with Calgary emergency management team, asking for some similar coordination efforts to be set up in Edmonton, as Doug had passed along reports from the Calgary shelters that NWT people have been trying to catch rides to Edmonton. Shauna suggested we will need to set up a system of coordination between the City of Edmonton’s emergency response, Edmonton shelters, GNWT and NWT shelters. B* responded within an hour explaining why it would likely be too hard or complicated to do so:
“Its important that I clarify the GNWT and Territorial EMO (TEMO) must work with the AEMA. Although this may seem overly bureaucratic, the arrangement is in place to ensure the provincial response is coordinated and relationships between the provincial and local authorities remain strong.
While the GNWT, TEMO, YWS, Salvation Army, Calgary service providers, and the City of Calgary all recognized there is a need to collaborate in support of a vulnerable population under extreme duress, and in an unfamiliar environment, we had to work through the Provincial Emergency Command Centre, at AEMA in order to make the meeting happen… The City of Calgary has a very strong relationship with shelter providers and organizations serving the vulnerable population in their city, so Doug is able to facilitate the kinds of connections we are beginning to benefit from post meeting…. The City of Edmonton contracts the Canadian Red Cross to operate as its host organization for NWT evacuees. Without a direct link to the City, and/or support services for the vulnerable and housing insecure, organizing a similar meeting may be very challenging.
I will raise the concern with our AEMA colleagues."
NOTE: It appears no coordination was ever established between the GNWT and the Edmonton shelter providers. Later on Sept 15, when we had more information that several of our participants had ended up stranded in Edmonton, B* confirmed that he had still not managed to contact any Edmonton shelters.
Also September 1 - YKWS heard NTHSSA was recalling their staff back to YK as essential, including the staff at the Fort Mac camp, who had been helping to look after Spruce Bough participants. Shauna reached out to D*. D* replied to say yes they are recalling everyone, but they’ll see if they can find other people to join us in Fort McMurray. Katy replied to remind NTHSSA that there were day shelter clients at the camp too, so NTHSSA couldn’t possibly be considering recalling all of its staff. B* (Cc’d) chimed in to say they have issued a call for volunteers among GNWT employees in Fort McMurray so maybe someone with suitable skills will volunteer to help us out. (We would note that one of the key NTHSSA staff we were relying upon included an outreach nurse … so consider it pretty unlikely that a GNWT employee with that skillset would have been kicking around and not otherwise being recalled).
Also Sept 1 (what a day!) - we heard from a City Councillor that all NWT evacuees would be kicked out of 7 Calgary hotels on September 6th (due to hotels being fed up with too much bad behaviour). Shauna got clarification from Mayor Alty that this info came from the Calgary EOC, but it wasn’t everyone being kicked out, just those being violent. She also reported that “Calgary is looking to set up a congregated care facility for folks who are kicked out”. On September 4th notices were given to a large number of Calgary evacuees that their stay would be terminated on September 5th (not due to any particular behaviour by those people, as we understand it). The GNWT then scrambled on Sept 4 and 5 and, together with workers from the City of Calgary, were able to re-assign all of those who were given this notice, to other hotels in Calgary, until they could be put on re-entry flights back to YK. The GNWT posted on its official website, that efforts were being made to find people alternate accommodations, but some would likely be assigned to “group accommodations” that would include social worker supports.
NOTE: These group accommodations were never set up.
Saturday September 2: The YKWS Board determined that, given the situations and locations of our staff, we would not be able to get the Women’s Centre back up and running until Friday, Sept 8. Shauna emailed Mayor Alty and City Council requesting that the City be prepared to set up cots in the Multiplex or some other facility, for those returning home without a home, and for those who might return before the Women’s Centre or other shelter facilities were back up and running. We explained we had not been able to get any info or confirmations from the GNWT on how or when re-entry flights for the vulnerable population would be arranged. On the same day, Mayor Alty replied saying that “The NWT EMO is organizing flights back for residents, and residents are being brought back in reverse order of the evacuation – so the general public who require minimal supports come back first and residents who need healthcare and/or shelter supports would come back last. The GNWT shouldn’t be booking anybody back who needs supports until the shelters are ready. I’d recommend that you continue to work with the GNWT on this.”
Sunday September 3: L* from the GNWT evacuation centre in Calgary called Renee asking for a list of our program participants who were still missing, and whether we needed any help getting them on flights home (!!??) Shauna emailed L* the list of our 60 participants with their last known status/location (most of whom we did not know their whereabouts), saying YKWS does not have any concrete info or instructions as to how to get these people home, so we do not consider ourselves their primary contact for getting home. We asked about whether special charters would be arranged, reiterating all the questions I’d asked Doug in Calgary on Sept 1 and had gotten no responses to.
Around this time we found out that one YK Day Shelter participant had died a few days previous from a suspected drug overdose in Alberta. Later that week we heard of a second YK resident dying in Edmonton from another suspected overdose.
Sun Sept 3 – Lindsay (YKWS Board member) reached out to D* (NTHSSA) for help getting the Women’s Centre open as soon as possible, and whether they had any contacts in the Red Cross who might be able to send staff to assist for the first few days. No assistance was provided.
Monday September 4 Shauna sent another increasingly urgent email (more sentences in all bold!) to B* (L* Cc’d) - saying, we need to know what is the plan for re-entry flights for the vulnerable population!! Are they charters or commercial flights and when? Should we expect our residents to be back home on Wed with no facilities yet open or ready? We are in contact with some of our participants and need to know what to tell them! Let us help you with your efforts - give us some info!! No response ever from B* on this.
The YKWS Board was becoming increasingly worried that the GNWT had no re-entry plan for the vulnerable population—we feared they would all be sent to the Calgary airport on their own to get on commercial flights, some without ID--and we were worried that lots of folx would be evicted the next day and be destabilized by all the turmoil, in addition to all the folx who had already been evicted from hotels during the previous weeks. We started discussing the possibility of arranging our own charter to bring our participants back to YK ASAP.
Mon Sept 4: Shauna called L* (Calgary evacuation centre lead from GNWT) on her cell phone, and she answered even though it was her one day off (holiday Monday). L* said that, in response to so many evacuees being notified by hotels they had to leave by Sept 5, the plan was to move all NWT evacuees together to one hotel, with social worker support onsite. Shauna mentioned that YKWS had been discussing the option of trying to bring all our participants back to YK together on Wed (if we could locate them), even though we could not have the Women’s Centre up and running til Fri, and had requested that the City or HSS set up cots, because we were worried that they were not being adequately supported in Calgary. L* strongly believed that this was an unwise idea - she said that people would be fine in Calgary, they would get set up in new hotels with social worker supports and access to Alberta health services—wouldn’t this be way better than cots in the Multiplex and limited health services in YK?
L* gave assurance that her team would have a ‘master list’ of the vulnerable population completed by Sept 5 and some kind of ‘tracking’ was going on at the GNWT end. Once they knew who was still “missing” they could send social workers (GNWT people teamed up with Calgary social workers) out onto the streets to look for people.
NOTE: We are not aware that this master list was ever completed or that there was ever any kind of systematic tracking of what happened to members of the underhoused population.
L* did assure us that the problem of folx without IDs had been solved for now - there would be a system of notaries issuing documents to people on their way to the airport. Despite having asked us whether we needed help on re-entry flights a day earlier, L* did not have any information on how flights were being arranged (Shauna was told to follow up with B* again) but L* said she was working under the assumption that our request (and the Salvation Army’s request) was being followed, to have vulnerable population wait til Friday to get on re-entry flights. L* urged Shauna to come to the Calgary evacuation reception centre to see for myself what was happening on the ground.
Tuesday September 5: Shauna spent the afternoon hanging out at the Calgary evacuation reception centre - there were lots of “support” workers there at various tables - a team of Calgary social workers, Alberta health workers, an Indigenous cultural support worker, a team of federal (ISC) workers with laptops helping people fill out re-entry registration forms, a few social workers or counsellors contracted by the GNWT. Shauna was told by the Calgary team that they had group accommodations all prepared in case people didn’t get reassigned to a new hotel - one for men, women, and families - but hurray! There was no need to use them since everyone issued a notice to leave a hotel on Sept 4-5 had been re-assigned another hotel. At the same time, Shauna heard throughout that day several support workers separately mention the problem of what to do with those who had been evicted from hotels due to “bad behaviour” (including just being sick and vomiting, making a mess, being rowdy or loud) - there was hand wringing but no one had a solution. Shauna said several times, “what about the group accommodations?” and the answer was no, no, there is no need to get this up and running. Those people can just go to the Drop-In Centre downtown, even though the support workers acknowledged at the same time that many folx did not want to go to the Drop In Centre, they would have to be pushed to go there.
Then Shauna ran into someone outside the evac centre who was a YKWS participant at the Women’s Shelter, someone who was on our “missing” list who we had not been able to contact because she didn’t have a cell - she related a harrowing story of having been on the streets with her male partner the last few weeks, being robbed, assaulted, etc. They had come looking for help and a place to stay, so we took them upstairs and tried to introduce them to the various official “support workers” we had spent the day chatting with. No one could or would help in any way. This couple could not be assigned a new hotel, because they had been evicted from one a few weeks earlier. There were no group accommodations to offer. They could not be given a meal downstairs or any vouchers - these were only for those staying in the hotel. They could not even be registered on a re-entry flight. They were told the only option was for them to go downtown to the Drop-In Centre - she started crying at this suggestion, she had been to the Drop In Centre and did not feel safe there, there were lots of scary people hanging out there, and she and her partner would have to be separated (men’s and women’s areas) - so she decided the only option for them was to sleep on the street again. Every time she started to get distressed and raise her voice, hotel security would come over, ready to kick them out onto the street. It was a heartbreaking and infuriating situation – wasn’t the whole point of this operation, to help people like this? Why couldn’t anyone help?? Unlike the scenario with Darlene, it seemed as though supports were now available, yet none of them could step up and support a person in obvious crisis.
At this point no one seemed to have any details about how flights were being organized or how they were sorting who to prioritize to put on which flight. It was an independent private contractor. Even GNWT reps at the evacuation centre now admitted that Women’s Centre residents could arrive back in YK at any time – there was no mechanism to channel them onto later flights, despite us having sent lists of names to everyone and their dog. Everyone at the evac centre seemed to agree that what is likely happening is that no one in the EMO has had time to think much about flights yet. Todays focus was on moving people from one hotel to another. Tomorrow they will worry about tomorrow’s issues.
In calling around to the Calgary shelters - Shauna realized that the Calgary shelter workers had received zero guidance at that point from the GNWT/EMO on how to help NWT people register for re-entry flights, or how to help them get home.
Wednesday Sept 6: In spite of having notified GNWT and City staff for the past 4 days that the Women’s Centre wouldn’t be open until Friday, and having circulated “the list” of Women’s Centre residents to the EMO to put them on later flights, some of the Women’s Centre residents are indeed flown back to YK on Wednesday morning. Multiple reports of women trying to go to the Women’s Centre and finding the doors still locked. Fortunately the Sobering Centre did have a number of supervised beds set up that they could access.
Wed Sept 6: Shauna had a phone conversation with Mayor Alty, explaining that her previous expectation of a phased re-entry was definitely not happening, and that the City might be needed to provide cots and a facility for those arriving before shelters were open. Mayor Alty committed to follow up with HSS - if HSS could provide staff then the City might be able to provide a facility and cots.
Sept 4 onward - YKWS staff and Board members are busy arranging the charter out of Fort Mac with Det’on Cho; the charter brought back Spruce Bough residents and other camp participants and staff on
Saturday Sept 9.
NOTE: At our max capacity, we housed 47 underhoused individuals together at the Fort McMurray camp. Some made the decision to leave on their own, to stay with family in Edmonton/surrounding area. Some left and then chose to return to the camp. Three were made to leave the camp by Civeo due to rules they had in place that were not followed, and these individuals were supported to get a hotel room in Fort Mac, and we continued outreach support throughout the evacuation period.
Week of Sept 11: YKWS staff continued to call and attempt to locate participants who had not yet arrived back. Lists of participants still “missing” were circulated to Calgary shelters, Calgary NPO and the GNWT EMO.
Wed Sept 13: We heard through contacts that several of our missing participants are thought to be in Edmonton. Shauna reached to Doug with the CIty of Calgary to ask about contacts in the Edmonton shelter sector, and by the end of the day, Doug and his colleagues had come up with a complete list of Edmonton shelters and front-line services and contacts. Shauna proceeded to
reach out to each of them, with a list of people we are looking for, with instructions to have them call YKWS and we would try to get them on flights home, if they wished.
Friday Sept 15: B* called Shauna and communicated to YKWS, for the first time, that there was a GNWT team on the ground in Edmonton (Clareview Rec Centre) at least until Wed Sept 20 and if we found anyone needing a flight home, the GNWT staff at the Centre could arrange this and pay for transportation, and in fact there are charter flights still leaving for the next day or so. Shauna asked B* whether he had communicated any of this to Edmonton shelters (where YK folks might turn up looking for help) and he explained that no, they had not made contact with any Edmonton shelters as it was too hard to figure out, it’s not the same system as in Calgary. Shauna then proceeded to forward all of B*’s instructions to all of the shelters in Edmonton on his behalf.
Sept 11-19 – Shauna, Zoe and Katy all separately receive multiple phone calls and emails from various people across GNWT each wanting similar information (names, lists, numbers) and offering overlapping information. There seems to be a sudden big final push for a few days to try to get the underhoused population out of Alberta or at least demonstrate that they have returned. But no one seems to really know how to go about it.
An example of what their efforts looked like in practice, from Zoe:
Sept 11 – I received a call from M*, at Housing NWT. He was looking for an update of how many shelter users hadn’t returned to Yellowknife yet. The call was first thing Monday morning so I estimated maybe 4 or 5 but I honestly just made that up because I hadn’t even had time to get that info yet.
Sept 12 – M* emailed asking if the remaining people have made it back to YK yet; I said not yet, and provided more of an update with accurate numbers and where we think people are.
Sept 14 - Email from M*: “has everyone returned now?” My response: no, we still have 1 in Ft Mac, 2 unaccounted for, and maybe 3 in Edmonton; his response: Are you expecting those in Ft Mac/Edmonton to return, and is there a plan for the unaccounted for?
Sept 15: I replied to M* that we had provided names to GNWT staff on the ground and shelters. I then asked: Is there anything Housing NWT is doing to find missing people/help them get home? It would be great to know if the unaccounted for individuals were ever registered as evacuees anywhere, and if they registered for a flight home.
We then spoke on the phone and he said that no, Housing NWT is not doing any of this kind of work, they wouldn’t have access to any of that sort of information because of privacy, etc.
September 19 - last day of EMO operations in Edmonton. I get a text from one of the GNWT on the ground staff asking if everyone made it home. No. They didn’t.
What else were they doing during that time to make this happen, besides bugging us every day? We don’t really know.
To go back a bit in time – on September 7th Minister Julie Green made a public statement on FB outlining the supports available for the underhoused community. The statement: “There's been talk of "lost" people in the vulnerable sector. The shelter providers have stayed in touch with their clients. As well, the EMO has compiled a master list along with contact information of people in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, and are helping to make arrangements to return to Yellowknife.”
No story, no problem, nothing to see here, right?
As of late September: we still have participants unaccounted for, who - as far as we know - have not made it home. We have filed missing persons reports and will continue to advocate for these people.