In the summer of 2023, wildfires forced the evacuation of 70% of the residents of the Northwest Territories. There was a lot of trauma that resulted from leaving their homes behind. But there was also the stress of figuring out how to get supports through cultural and language barriers, and the shock that came when they returned to devastated communities. Yellowknife psychologist Merril Dean provides an inside look at the experiences of the people in the Northwest Territories, and makes some suggestions as to how schools can best help their staff and students upon their return from devastating climate events like these.
The unprecedented numbers of wildfires in the Northwest Territories (NWT) in the spring and summer of 2023 saw more than two-thirds (roughly 70%) of the territory’s residents displaced from their homes. Much of the population was evacuated from their homes for periods exceeding a month. Some communities faced multiple evacuations. On May 14 at 4:30 pm, Katlodeche Reserve, was evacuated across the river to Hay River. At 11 pm that very evening, the town of Hay River had an evacuation notice issued with citizens from (now both) communities urged to go to Yellowknife or head south into Alberta. On June 6th the population were allowed to return. Then on August 12th, the population of Fort Smith was evacuated to Hay River. Less than 30 hours later the communities of Hay River and Katlodeche faced yet another evacuation, this time to Alberta, finally able to return after September 13th. Communities north of Hay River faced evacuations through August, with Yellowknife being evacuated on August 13th. In total approximately 25,900 people were evacuated from their homes in the NWT during the summer of 2023.
Gerald Antoine, Grand National Chief of the Dene Nation, has called for an independent public inquiry to encourage everyone to talk about their experiences as the NWT government’s planned wildfire review does not include public engagement.
The massive evacuations of both large and small communities in the NWT this summer highlighted problems that may not be totally unique to the north, but became much more acute because of the relative isolation and the language and cultural component of many of the Indigenous communities in the north. In the past, communities that faced evacuation were typically encouraged to seek shelter in the closest larger community within the territory, thus ensuring at least some cultural and language supports were available; however, the breadth of evacuations in 2023 sent families south. For families with their own transportation and experience with travel, the evacuations, though stressful and frightening, were manageable. For families from smaller communities, or even Yellowknife, who had limited means and no transportation, the evacuation presented bigger hurdles. Families were loaded onto planes to be flown south. They were allowed to bring only 1 small backpack per person. In a number of situations the people did not even know where they were going when their planes took off. At least one flight was rerouted in mid-air and the passengers were taken to Calgary instead of Edmonton. In some cases Elders, who are unilingual speakers of their Indigenous languages, were evacuated to cities where there were no language supports. One educator reported that her grandmother was sent to Vancouver on the medical evacuation and it took the family 4 days to locate her and have a family member travel to join her to act as a translator.
The National Association of School Psychologists wrote a 2017 article about helping children and families after wildfires. Their article talks about how massive evacuations upset security and normalcy. The need to relocate, even temporarily, causes trauma, emotional reactions and coping issues.
For children and families who evacuated the NWT by road in the summer of 2023, additional stress was created by having to drive through fire on either side of the road, while also experiencing extremely poor air quality and visibility because of smoke. During this summer, families driving out of the north drove through the community of Enterprise, where 90% of the community had been burned down a few days before the northern evacuation. The sight of the burned-out community was devasting to children and adults alike.
For some students in the NWT, evacuations caused them to experience interrupted schooling through May-June and again in September before they were allowed to go home. Those students who drove back to their communities were witness to vast expanses of burned land, and active fires still burning or smoldering. Air quality was still poor. These sights made it apparent to the children that, despite being allowed to return home, the fires were still very real and close by.
The evacuations in the north were costly for families. While accommodations were provided through the Red Cross, or local disaster organizations in communities that accepted evacuees (these accommodations were paid for by the Government of the Northwest Territories - GNWT), those who were most economically vulnerable still experienced considerable economic stress. Hourly wage earners were suddenly without income, families on income support had already spent much of their monthly stipend on food that they could not bring with them during the evacuation. Promises of funding were implied by the government, but it wasn’t until near the end of the evacuation when details were shared – and evacuation financial supports were quite minimal. As a result, children and families faced food insecurity both during and after the evacuation.
Returning to the north following the evacuation exposed families to the sight of considerable changes around their homes and communities. Houses outside of their neighbourhoods had been destroyed by fire, and the burn areas approached the communities - in some cases encroaching right into them. Driving in their hometowns, children and families were constantly exposed to reminders of the evacuation and ongoing threat. Wildfires moved underground in the north, into the peat and as a result, at the time of writing (January 2024), fires are still smoldering – issuing smoke, and sometimes bursting into flames in the burn areas. While driving the highway between communities, where there was significant burn, people are still smelling and seeing active fires. While the burns are not currently threatening homes, their very presence causes unease and worry.
The massive number of people evacuated means that everyone in every community was affected. Teachers and counsellors were touched by the evacuation and threat of wildfires, and experienced the after-effects, just as their students and their families did. The added stress of financial strain caused by the evacuations has added to food insecurity and increased financial worries for families in the north.
Steps to support staff in schools, to ensure that they can also support their students, is important. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends that school staff be given the opportunity to share their experiences and feelings and process them so they can support their students. Staff need to be aware of possible trauma responses from their students and be prepared to share that information with parents, who might be expressing the view that their child’s behaviour has changed since the evacuations.
(Anecdotally, psychologists working in fire-affected communities are reporting an uptick in parental referrals for children experiencing anxiety and behavioural symptoms that emerged during the evacuation and have not resolved.)
Schools with counselling support should be encouraged to create group crisis intervention discussions with their students to encourage them to share their experiences, process concerns, and help them understand wildfires. In schools and districts that have school psychologists, they could be the ones leading these discussions. In the NWT there are no school- or school district-employed psychologists, but similar support could be found through mental health youth counsellors.
As the community begins to return, it is important that schools continue to provide supports that allow students the opportunity to explore and process their experiences. It’s also important to discuss concrete steps that students can take and how to involve themselves in actions that can help them develop problem-solving skills for the future.
As climate-related events cause more upheaval and disruption to large numbers of population groups, it is important that schools and systems develop plans to support both their students and their staff. As the lived experience in the NWT shows, there are stages of response – from the immediate needs that come with an evacuation to the longer-term worries, concerns and impacts that an extended evacuation will cause. School districts are encouraged to ensure they have “return to school” plans that include longer-term mental health supports for students and families. They are also encouraged to promote long-term actions regarding the climate-related crises that are becoming more and more common throughout the country.
This article by Merril Dean originally appeared in the Fall-Winter newsletter of the CPA’s Education and School Psychology Section.