My Time as a Climate Refugee

Lessons from last year's wildfire evacuation

Lois Little

Elder and former NWT Commissioner Margaret Thom leading the Feeding the Water ceremony | Photo © Lois Little

Elder and former NWT Commissioner Margaret Thom leading the Feeding the Water ceremony | Photo © Lois Little

Climate refugees are people forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change. Surprisingly, I became a climate refugee in August 2023 after being ordered to evacuate from my home in Yellowknife.

Since June, I had been living with wildfires nearby and suffering through record high-risk air quality, but it was forest fires threatening the west end of the Northwest Territories’ capital city that caused a local – then territorial – declaration of a state of emergency. These declarations were followed by the City of Yellowknife ordering a full evacuation. This all happened within two days.

Yellowknife has a population of about 22,000. Without a plan, it was unclear if the city-wide evacuation order meant everyone had to leave, how that was going to happen, and how the threatening fires would be fought with everybody gone. After all, up to two days prior to issuing the evacuation order, the City was still telling Yellowknifers that in the case of emergency, we would shelter in place in the safest places in the community.

I needed to know about the fire situation and the risks, whether residents could help fight it, and how (and by whom) decisions were being made.

So it was unsurprising that many residents didn’t take the City’s order seriously. I was one of them. I live on the shores of Great Slave Lake, the tenth largest lake in the world. Even though it’s shrinking dramatically, it’s a safe place in times of wildfires.

But finally I did evacuate and become a climate refugee.

Unlike many other climate refugees around the world, Yellowknifers had two full days to evacuate. After weighing the pros and cons, I left my home an hour before the deadline. I made this decision based on the threat of a shutdown of essential health, water, electricity and food services; the City’s warnings that to stay would put others at risk; and discussions with friends near and far. I knew I could manage through the loss of services but I was not prepared to put others at risk. Still, I resented the lack of specific information to inform my decisions.

I needed to know about the fire situation and the risks, whether residents could help fight it, and how (and by whom) decisions were being made and messages crafted. I resented being made a climate refugee.

Rumours and speculation

Over the few days leading up to the evacuation deadline, rumours and speculation filled information gaps. These gaps, and supposed “insider information” led many residents to flee the city in panic the day the evacuation order was issued. This caused dangerous traffic conditions on the Mackenzie Highway, the only road leading out of Yellowknife. We are very lucky no one was killed or injured.

Those without resources to independently evacuate lined up for hours to register for hastily-organized flights to evacuation centers in Alberta. Many waiting to register for flights were turned away and told to return the next day. Some didn’t. People fell through the cracks at both ends of the chaotic evacuation process, either due to problems evacuating, or from getting lost in an unsupportive southern city.

At least a couple thousand Yellowknifers either chose not to evacuate or were required to stay to fight fires, support fire crews, or manage other facets of this emergency situation.

Some people simply ignored the evacuation order and headed out in their boats to camps on Great Slave Lake. Little did they know that the wording of the order would be changed a week later to allow for fines or jail sentences for non-compliance. I don’t know if any such punishments were ever ordered but the announcement of such measures sent shock waves through the community.

a man and a woman walking five husky dogs on a dirt road, trees in background

The sled dogs bolstered our mental health | Photo: Lois Little

Somewhere in the evacuation order messages, we were told to pack clothing and other necessities for five days. That message wedged in my head as the amount of time I would be away from home, instead of the three-weeks that it turned out to be.

A day after the evacuation order was issued, a text message from long-time friends at the Fort Providence Territorial Park campground 300 km from Yellowknife influenced my decision to evacuate to that location. I was undaunted by the prospect of camping for a short time in this well-known blackfly capital. Another long-time friend and his five sled dogs were headed there too, so it was in his mini-convoy that I drove away with basic camp gear, food, and clothing for a five-day stay. Of course, I also packed my folder of pertinent papers just in case the fires actually did make it to my home on the shores of Great Slave Lake.

Fort Providence Campsite

Perhaps 80-150 of us Yellowknifers chose the Fort Providence Territorial Park campground, a hotel room in the community, or shelter with local friends for all or part of the evacuation period.

Like other refugees, choosing a relatively close community made sense as I truly did not anticipate being away from home for more than five days or a week at the most. After the long winter, northerners like myself don’t like to miss a summer no matter how smoky and scary it is. Few of the refugees in Fort Providence wanted to be in a southern city with uncertain accommodation, communications, or connections with others.

Some refugees had tried camping near Behchokǫ̀, closer to Yellowknife, but that community had even less infrastructure than Fort Providence. Those climate refugees quickly learned that they could be a burden to those who take them in. Still, Fort Providence took us in, burden or not.

Although Fort Providence was not a designated evacuation centre, local public and Indigenous governments and community organizations like the Zhahti Koe Friendship Centre stepped up to welcome and care for us throughout our stay.

Community matters to people forced from their own homes and neighbourhoods.

A small group of Yellowknife refugees did some emergency fundraising and set up a “Yellowknife Evacuees in Fort Providence” Facebook page to complement the community’s efforts to support us. At least once a day, the community brought a meal to us climate refugees at the campground, or invited us to a meal at the restaurant in town or the community hall.

climate refugee BBQ, people sitting together in camp chairs with trees and buildings in background

NWT MP Michael McLeod hosted a climate refugee BBQ and Albert Canadien led us in song | Photo: Lois Little

We were invited to participate in a Feed the Water Ceremony, a traditional drum dance, games nights, art activities, and several other special events. The NWT’s MLA, who resides in the community, brought refugees together for a barbecue and musical performance from a well-known local musician. The NWT’s former Commissioner, Margaret Thom, who also resides in Fort Providence, actively engaged us in local ceremonies. It was these generous and kind efforts that facilitated community-building with us climate refugees. Community matters to people forced from their own homes and neighbourhoods .

Our campsite, with four older people living in tents and five sled dogs nearby, attracted other refugees who wanted to socialize or just vent for the sake of their mental health. As such, our campsite was a place of connections and community. This was a balm for our spirit, as were the daily walks with the sled dogs.

Sense of powerlessness

Still, the lack of up-to-date information and the sense of powerlessness that comes with uncertainty and the unknown challenged our mental health and well-being. Scraps of dubious second-hand information took the place of factual updates about the state of our homes and neighbourhoods, the fire situation and the time-frame for lifting the evacuation order – and did nothing to assuage our well-being.

The evacuation order was lifted at noon on September 6. We were ready to go home even though the fires were still burning, the skies still metallic grey-yellow, and the smoke still strong.

In fact, these conditions continued intermittently into October. The morning of the City of Yellowknife’s welcome home gathering in late September was apocalyptic under a dark orange sky and heavy wildfire smoke. The gathering was postponed and never did happen, nor did any public post-evacuation community meetings or conversations to debrief the collective trauma and impacts of the 2023 wildfire season.

Lesson not learned

I was among those who advocated to government and community agencies to host sharing circles, town-hall sessions, potluck meals, ceremonies and special events to rebuild community. Unlike Fort Providence, Yellowknife didn’t seem to understand the power of community in times of emergency and disaster. How this lesson not learned will impact us in 2024 remains to be seen.

Lois Little has lived in Canada’s three northern territories, and in Yellowknife, NWT since 1975. She is dedicated to community and social development in her work and activism, including with the NWT chapter of the Council of Canadians.

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