In 2001, Freda Hope and her common-law partner were riding snowmobiles through the narrows of Prosperous Lake when she plunged into frozen water.

Her partner was ahead, driving a faster sled, when he hit a rock, crashed and broke
his leg. According to a CBC report in 2017 recounting the incident, the pair were on their way to a cabin but were lost and doubling back when the accident occurred.

The change is long overdue, according to former coroner Percy Kinney.
NNSL File Photo

Hope recovered from the fall, pulling herself up from the freezing waters, and back onto the ice. She walked a kilometre, soaked, until coming to a cabin, where she died of hypothermia.

Her partner, meanwhile, was picked up by another snowmobiler, and eventually hitched a
ride with a pick-up truck driver, who attempted to call 911. He was unable to reach the nonexistent number, however. The driver didn’t know the territory didn’t have a 911 system but rather, a local prefix followed by 1111 for police and 2222 for fire or ambulance.

The Northwest Territories is one of very few jurisdictions in North America without one.
Hope’s partner was taken to the hospital; she was found the next day.

In a report on Hope’s death, Percy Kinney, Yellowknife field coroner from 1993 to 1998,
and chief coroner from 1998 to 2007, recommended Yellowknife install a 911 emergency
phone system.

“You never know the unknown,” he told Yellowknifer. “The thought is always: had there
been 911 service … in place, they would have got hold of someone. This is all wish, wish. Had they gotten hold of someone quickly, there would have been someone out there earlier to do a search. And perhaps they would have found her.”

Ultimately, he can’t say if lives would or wouldn’t have been saved had the city or territory implemented 911 years ago. The phone system will go live across the territory Monday.

“The sooner you get people on these things and working, the better the chance of surviving any ordeal,” Kinney said. “She was just the one that it was such a tragedy. That she
actually got out of the predicament she was in, going through the ice.

“(Hope) was able to escape that, and yet because, she went to a cabin, no one was there,
and by the time help arrived to look for her, it was far too late. It may have been too late anyways.”

Former mayor recalls 911 struggle

Gord Van Tighem, mayor from 2000 to 2012, recalls 911 as an ever present issue while he was in office. “We had recurring instances of people, tourists or people who had watched a lot of TV, coming into an emergency situation and just by reflex calling 911
because that was the standard in North America. It has been for many years.” he said.

Confusion and burning through time in an emergency is a common theme in the lead up to a territory-wide 911 service. In 2014, a 12 year-old Yellowknifer named Stephen Messier “freaked out” as an intruder broke into his home. He pulled out his smartphone and called the fire hall, thinking RCMP dispatch number was 669-2222 (fire department).

Gordon Van Tighem served four consecutive terms as Yellowknife mayor.
Brendan Burke/NNSL photo

“I did get mixed up between the police and the fire department,” he told Yellowknifer at the time. “I realized then it was the wrong number. But I knew it because you see the number around town and I hear about it at our school.”

Messier dialed the correct number afterwards but his story is indicative of other instances where incorrect dialing delayed the delivery of assistance.

Another memorable episode in 2016 saw Fitzgerald Carpeting burn down while an individual mistakenly dialed 911 to no response. The man eventually drove to the fire hall to report the blaze while the building burned behind him.

These issues didn’t go unnoticed. Van Tighem said the city put in a significant
amount of work toward implementing 911 during his tenure. Council struck a committee and commissioned a study, asking what the cost would be for a territorywide service.

“Which may have been a mistake, or created some of the delay,” said Van Tighem.
He said the path for 911 already existed with the RCMP automated call-in system to Yellowknife central. However, the extra costs of increased staffing was outside of city’s budget at the time.

The staffing and infrastructure were simply too costly, said Van Tighem, adding “it got off the ground but it took until now.” The reality of creating the system in a widely dispersed, low population area meant money was always a hurdle.

“It’s basically just something that took time,” he said

‘Not just pulling the covers in’

Nonetheless, the three-digit number is universal and easy to remember. Newcomers and visitors to the territory are not likely to know the 1111 and 2222 phone system. There had been “many, many cases” after car accidents and other incidents where witnesses said they tried dialing 911, said Kinney.

In another instance, Kinney recalls an Albertan judge running a dog team with a friend on Great Slave Lake. The judge suffered a heart attack. They were soon on the phone dialling
911 and wasting time, “trying to get through to a 911 service that didn’t exist,” Kinney said.

“They didn’t know who to call. Once you’re stymied by 911 and you don’t know where to go. Now what do you do?” he said.

In 2009, city council recommended moving forward with the service but then-Municipal and
Community Affairs minister Robert C. McLeod insisted all communities must have access to the service.

MLAs shut down the city’s request for a government share of the costs. Other larger communities – Inuvik, Hay River, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Norman Wells and Behchoko – also had to wait.

“That would leave 23 per cent without any kind of service at all, and that is a concern of
ours,” McLeod said in the legislative assembly. He later called for an examination of the
service in 2015, eventually leading to the plans that will come to fruition on Monday.

That took time. Kinney emphasized the system’s complexity, comparing the 911 process to
renovating a bedroom into a kitchen.

“It’s not just pulling the covers in,” he said. “You got plumbing, you got electrical, you got
all kinds of things behind the scenes.”

Kinney argues, however, that the service could have been rolled out earlier in major centres like Yellowknife, Inuvik, and Hay River, and potentially Fort Simpson. He said those four places all had systems in place, with 24/7 emergency services.

But there was a lack of political will to take this tack.

Reflecting on the program’s long history of development, he asked readers to consider the effects of political delays on needed services.

“Whether that delay cost lives over time, I don’t know. It certainly caused precious time to be lost as people fumbled with a system to get help,” Kinney said.

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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