N.W.T. evacuees talk traditional knowledge in fire management and mental health from land

As Yellowknife residents started returning home on Sept. 6, the future of South Slave region residents remains in limbo.

Long-time friends Julie Beaver of Fort Smith and Faye Aviugana of Hay River originally from Inuvik found themselves both evacuated to nearby South Slave region of Fort Resolution – grateful to be out on the land rather than a city during the wildfires.

“It was like the apocalypse as a lot of people would say like ‘it was really eerie,’” said Beaver, who is of Cree background, describing the sight on Aug. 13 in Fort Smith during their evacuation order.

“It was interesting to look at the sky and see how dark it was and red and then you look at your your time and it was like four in the afternoon.”

Both women say they chose to base themselves within the N.W.T. on the land rather than in cities as they wait for the evacuation orders to be lifted.

Eerie sight at 4 p.m. on Aug. 13 in Fort Smith on day of evacuation. Photo: Julie Beaver

Aviugana said she’s not new to experiencing natural disaster evacuations, having now gone through four including the May 2022 flash floods.

Aviugana said on a personal level, she’s learned from evacuation experiences, she chose more careful where she was going to go for the unknown amount of time before evacuations are lifted.

“Despite being displaced again, for the fourth time, I am grateful that I’m here because the  third time that I was evacuated, I feel and I was in a hotel room, while I was grateful that they covered our hotel, it wasn’t what was comfortable for me,” said Aviguana, who is Inuvialuit. “Being at Mission Island in Fort Resolution has been a blessing for me.”

“If I had to evacuate again, I probably wouldn’t have left here because it’s draining, emotionally and physically.”

Beaver said tensions were initially high as she and her daughter separated looking for her cat with no cell service, later reuniting.

“We didn’t want to go to the city, we knew it was going be hard to be living in a hotel,” said Beaver. “We are really connected to the land, and we spend a lot of time out at our cabin north of Fort Smith.”

“I’ve just really try to think about how to stay connected, like, I’ve gone out picking spruce gum, my daughter and I, we made our way to the water to the Great Slave Lake and offered prayers and tobacco.

“I keep trying to come back now to, to the land, and how important it is.”

Staying at Mission Island cabins in Fort Resolution. Photo: Julie Beaver

Since the second week of August, the internet and cable communications have been down because of the fires. Communities such as Fort Resolution, ATMs and credit machines haven’t been working.

While significantly congested and slow, on Aug. 28, Northwestel announced that all telecommunications services have now restored in Kakisa and Jean Marie River.

Beaver and Aviugana said it’s been tough not being able to stay in contact with family but grateful for access to the Starlink satellite internet during the ongoing outages.

On Aug. 18, Beaver said cell service came back on in Fort Resolution.

“One friend posted I never thought I would be saying congratulations to Elon Musk for creating Starlink right… to be able to have this capability,” said Beaver. “Right now definitely need it…. my son ordered one and definitely going to be leaving Northwestel for Starlink for sure because it is portable.”

Beaver and Aviugana urge authorities to make evacuation announcements much sooner so there is less panic.

And that authorities take seriously going to elders and knowledge keepers on traditional burning practices.

“There’s been fires throughout history, but they’ve never been allowed to get as big as these fires have been,” said Beaver. “I think these are the biggest in N.W.T.’s history the fire to take as many trees as it’s taken.”

“There has to be some kind of a balance. What’s happening right now with the government is you have these young people who finished their masters and think that they know everything and they’re not willing to talk to the Elders.

“The Elders have the knowledge and it has to come back to that or we’re not going to have a place to live in anymore.”

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