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Stephen Ellis: A tale of two territories

As I talk to more and more people about their evacuation experience, I am mostly hearing two kinds of stories. One kind of story is mostly a good one, and it goes kind of like this:
Stephen Ellis is a long-time Northerner who enjoys setting nets.

As I talk to more and more people about their evacuation experience, I am mostly hearing two kinds of stories. One kind of story is mostly a good one, and it goes kind of like this:

“I made my way south and found a stable place to stay in a decent hotel or with family and friends. I soon found out that my employer would continue to pay me while displaced, even though I could not fulfill my job duties. Luckily I also had some savings in the bank to draw from.

“I felt uncertain about what the future would hold, but I made the best of my time away. My family and I visited with friends and relatives, we saw the sights, and we ate at restaurants and shopped in stores that we don’t have here in the NWT. Overall, it was a ‘nice break’, even a ‘paid vacation’.”

With this kind of evacuation story, no wonder some of us are taking our sweet time getting back to the NWT. Unfortunately, the other kind of story is mostly real bad, and it goes a little something like this:

“I don’t own a car and can’t afford a plane ticket, so I got in the long lines for the charters to southern cities. I don’t have lot of savings to draw from, so once in the southern city, I got in line again to access food and accommodation supports at the evacuation center.

“The people helping me were doing their best, but I got bounced around from place to place, uncertain where my next night’s sleep would be or where my next meal might come from. After a few days, my employer informed me that they would not pay me while evacuated — in fact I almost lost my job. But I guess I was lucky in some way – some of my family and friends who struggle with mental health and addiction issues had it worse than me.

“It seems like nobody considered what would happen to them once they were left to fend for themselves in a big, strange city.”

Now in fairness, these stories are kinda the extremes — many people’s stories fall somewhere in the middle. But I share the two types of stories to make a point: the evacuation has had profoundly different consequences for those with money and stability in their lives and those without. And those without are disproportionately the Indigenous people of the NWT.

Security and stability for Indigenous peoples in the NWT most often comes from the strength of family. So I cannot understand why so many Indigenous Yellowknife residents were shipped south instead of being supported to be with their families in neighbouring communities, most of which were not under evacuation orders.

Heck, an approach like this could have even put some government money into the hands of families to take care of their own, as opposed to blowing the emergency funds on airline companies and southern hotel chains.

First Nation, Metis, and Inuvialuit organizations have been left to fix the mess. They have been working hard to locate their people scattered throughout the southern cities, figure out how they need to be supported, and ultimately how to bring them home. This is being done on an individual basis for hundreds of people.

It is being done to bring home the intoxicated underage girl who was loaded on a plane and shipped to Winnipeg alone. It is being done for the elderly couple who were left unattended at the Edmonton airport without much money, no ID, and little English language skills. Huge effort and expense is being put out by Indigenous organizations to deal with this mass displacement.

Much of this could have been prevented with better planning and coordination in partnership with Indigenous organizations. For example, Indigenous organization representatives could have been present at evacuation registration sites and streamed their people towards neighbouring communities as opposed to southern cities.

Our mistakes during these evacuations have had real human costs. I agree that our politicians have some reason to pat themselves on the back — our city and communities are mostly unharmed by wildfire, and for that we need to give credit where it is due.

But we also need to take a long hard look at where we messed up. The evacuation has caused unnecessary human harm, often to our most vulnerable. With territorial elections coming up, I for one will be looking for candidates with the courage to admit mistakes, the humility to learn from them, and the strength to make change.