Pauktuutit president recalls ‘eerie’ feeling fleeing Yellowknife

By David Lochead, Nunatsiaq News - August 24, 2023
Wildfire smoke could be seen as Gerri Sharpe and her family evacuated Yellowknife due to the surrounding wildfires last week. (Photo courtesy of Gerri Sharpe)

Gerri Sharpe says it felt “eerie” driving through heavy black smoke from wildfires near Enterprise, N.W.T., as she and family evacuated Yellowknife and headed for safety in Alberta last week.

“The smoke was so thick from the fires,” she said.

“You couldn’t see the sun. It was black.”

Sharpe, a resident of Yellowknife, evacuated the N.W.T.’s capital by car and is now in Leduc, Alta., just outside of Edmonton.

Sharpe is president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, a non-profit agency that represents Inuit women in Canada. Originally from Gjoa Haven, she is one of many Nunavut Inuit who fled Yellowknife as wildfires crept closer to the city of about 20,000 people.

Pauktuutit president Gerri Sharpe, seen in a file photo, is one of many Nunavut Inuit who evacuated the Yellowknife area last week as wildfires got close to the N.W.T. capital. (File photo by Madalyn Howitt)

Nunavummiut who reside in Yellowknife are now dispersed among evacuation stations in Alberta, which include Edmonton, Calgary, Fox Creek, Valleyview and Red Deer.

There were 237 active wildfires burning in the Northwest Territories on Wednesday, according to the government website.

Leaving on the afternoon of Aug. 16, Sharpe got out before the official evacuation order was issued later that night.

Sharpe and her aunt worked together to get out, with each of them driving multiple family members in separate cars.

They made the nearly 1,500-kilometre trip, arriving at a Leduc hotel on Aug. 17 one or two hours before the “massive amounts of people arrived.”

Since then, life has been scrambled for Sharpe and the other evacuees.

She said that initially the government — either Alberta or the Northwest Territories, she isn’t sure — committed to paying for all meals, but now is covering the cost of two meals per day for evacuees.

Now, she said, she is helping fellow Nunavut Inuit who have been evacuated fill out their forms to receive funding from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which is offering $1,000 per Nunavut Inuit household affected by the wildfires.

Sharpe said the Expo Centre in Edmonton has been “fabulous” in providing assistance for people who fled the wildfires. She said she and her family are doing alright.

“We are going to get food, we are going to get a place to sleep, and we are safe,” she said.

However, she has heard that other evacuation centres, such as one in Valleyview, Alta., have not been running with the same quality.

With uncertainty about whether the wildfires might still reach Yellowknife, Sharpe said she heard some people say they are willing to go home.

On Wednesday, the fires were reported to be about 15 kilometres from Yellowknife.

“People are very antsy,” she said.

Sharpe said she is seeing the effect the wildfires are having on animals, insects and water in the region.

“I hate to think about what next summer is going to be like,” she said.

Meanwhile, in an effort to help, some Dene leaders are organizing a free show for evacuees at the River Cree Resort in Edmonton. Sharpe knows a few Inuit throat singers who are in town and is trying to get them to perform.

On the impact Yellowknife’s wildfires will have on Inuit, she said it will “show tight and deep the lines that Inuit have with Yellowknife.”

On Wednesday, the Government of Nunavut announced it will donate $250,000 to the United Way Northwest Territories Emergency Response Fund.

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for that agency told the CBC “our coffers are empty” as it tries to support N.W.T. residents affected by the wildfires.

As the wildfires continue, medical travel and travel through the Kitikmeot region will all be affected, Sharpe said.

“Everything goes through Yellowknife,” she said.

Canadian North told Nunatsiaq News in an email that because of the wildfires cargo operations that normally run out of Yellowknife are instead operating in Edmonton.

To try to maintain scheduled service, temporary routes have been established in Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay and Inuvik.

Flight cancellations in and out of Yellowknife due to the wildfires have also impacted Nunavut students who use the territory’s financial assistance program, known as FANS.

Matthew Illaszewicz, director of stakeholder engagement with the Department of Education, said the GN has been working to get students’ flights rebooked, adding that travel through Kitikmeot is now open again.

Illaszewicz said students who have yet to fill their FANS Travel Request Form should do so as soon as possible.

Located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, Nunatsiaq News is dedicated to covering affairs in Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec since 1973. It has been a partner to ArcticToday and its predecessors since 2016.

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