For some N.W.T. evacuees, a personal financial crisis unfolds

Evacuees who spoke with Cabin Radio for this article described not only inadequate financial help but also a sudden, jarring loss of the supports they need to get by.

The territorial government is currently offering payments of up to $1,000 for evacuees on income assistance, a $750 one-time payment for people whose income was disrupted, and payments of up to $750 per vehicle to people who drove themselves to safety during an evacuation. Businesses can access up to $5,000 in help.

But the uncertainty of many evacuees' situations, ranging from the initial ambiguity of who's footing the bill to the lack of clarity around when everyone can go home, is taking a severe toll on some displaced residents.

“Other than the announcement of that payment, $750 per vehicle, I have not received any other support. I’m a caregiver for my brother, Fred, who has dementia,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Lepine, a Cree Elder who evacuated with her brother from Hay River on August 16.

The two moved into the home of their nephew, Chris, in Edmonton, and Chris and his wife relocated to his parents' house.

This was done out of necessity, said Chris, because conditions at the evacuation centre and hotel accommodation would be inconceivable for his aunt and uncle – the lights and noise, the large number of people, and the pre-arranged meals would conflict with the complex health needs of two Elders.

Beatrice and Fred arrived after the 19-hour drive exhausted. “It was hard on them. When they got in on the Thursday night, they looked absolutely miserable,” said Chris. “It was unbelievable.”

He says it would have been even worse had they utilized public services.

“My uncle’s mental health would’ve collapsed, because he would not be able to wake up in a very large space with hundreds of people around him, not knowing where he is or how to get to the bathroom,” Chris explained.

“My aunt, who already shoulders the responsibilities of looking after him, would have nowhere to turn to, nobody to help her.”

“Big spaces, lots of people – that’s not him. He just shuts down when he gets into spaces like that,” Beatrice added. “He just can’t function. He gets all confused.”

Supporting his aunt and uncle, Chris has taken on a financial responsibility, is fielding requests and questions, and commutes for an extra hour from his parents' house. There’s no end in sight.

“I’ve been effectively turned from a day-to-day IT guy into a landlord,” Chris said.

Asked whether the financial support from the GNWT was sufficient, Beatrice said: “There’s lots of additional costs that people just don’t even realize."

She continued: "No, it doesn’t cover very much, and it certainly doesn’t cover things like my nephew’s utilities, his electricity. All those services that we’re being provided in his home is not covered by the government. It’s inadequate, really, when you think about it.”

Chris queried the provision of anything to help Elders like his relatives.

“I have not seen anything specifically offered to be of help" to people like Fred and Beatrice, he told Cabin Radio. "Both their medical condition as well as their age.”

Beatrice and Fred each have diabetes and must eat carefully. “Fred and I follow a low-carb diet, so we’d have to eat heavy on the salads,” said Beatrice. “It means a sense of well-being because your blood sugars are in the normal range. And because we were so stressed when we arrived here, Fred was sleeping a lot. I found myself sleeping a lot too, until I finally caught up... it was two or three days before I could feel a sense of well-being. With diabetes, well-being is important.”

Fred has dementia symptoms to balance with his other medical concerns.

“That’s one area where I see [the government] as failing diabetics and Elders,” said Beatrice. “You’re basically left on your own, really, by our healthcare system.”

Chris worried what would have happened had his relatives been forced to pay for appropriate accommodation themselves.

“They’ve effectively transferred the burden of responsibility, the financial responsibility, from the government ... to seniors’ families, which I find shocking,” said Chris. “I’ve never seen a government effectively turn what we would call an evacuee into a refugee, just by dumping them over the border.”

Chris is not alone in his experience seeking services for evacuees with special needs.

Shirley Cook was worried about the kind of care she would receive if she took an emergency airlift out of Yellowknife. She has disabilities that cause a speech impediment and complicate communication.

Shirley decided to take a flight to Regina, Saskatchewan to stay with her daughter-in-law, Kelly, and grandchildren.

Kelly has six children aged eight to 13 and is pregnant with her seventh. Her husband is out of town for work, while Kelly’s job as a school bus driver is just starting up again. All that to say, Shirley arrived to a busy home.

“She came here to family and she paid her own way,” said Kelly. “We're having trouble trying to find funding or any kind of services, anything in Saskatchewan to help with her, because she decided to come here.

"I had no luck. I was calling all the services here – Mobile Crisis, 811, 211, everywhere – and they were just not very helpful.”

Shirley packed three changes of clothes in a hurry, and not much else. Since she arrived, Kelly says she has spent more than $1,000 to support her mother-in-law.

“We’ve been selling items from our own house to financially support her dietary needs and her special things she needs,” said Kelly.

“I would like respite, help with her in the house, or to take her even for a walk or things like that, while I’m at work.

"There is no evacuation centre here where she can go eat or get some clothes. Even the thrift stores, I’ve talked to managers and said, 'Can we get a discount at least for an evacuee?' The thrift store couldn’t even give her a senior’s discount, so we’ve been paying full price for everything.”

Local churches have been the only help so far, supplying a chair for the shower, proper railings, a dresser, and even sweaters for colder nights. “There has been a lot of community support," said Kelly, "but not resource support.”

Since evacuating from Yellowknife more than a week ago, Shirley has since received $500 for income assistance. As it stands, she does not qualify for the GNWT's Income Disruption Support, Evacuation Travel Support, or organized re-entry for evacuees.

Because Shirley chose to evacuate to Saskatchewan to be with family, and because she paid for it herself, Kelly worries how Shirley will get back without financial assistance.

Kelly says they have the space at home and want to care for Shirley, but just need some help supplying food and clothing, and some in-person care during the work day.

The N.W.T. government has said the supports available in southern jurisdictions are not a matter over which it has control, and has thanked provinces like Alberta for the help local authorities have so far provided.

But concerns over financial support are affecting northerners across the board.

For Jamin Fraser – an alias the Yellowknife resident uses – the situation as it stands is ruinous.

After following government directives under the evacuation order and driving himself out of Yellowknife, Fraser’s car broke down in High Level, an event that he said required $3,000 in repairs – a bill he acknowledges is not necessarily the territory's fault. But, he has had his income disrupted due to the evacuation and, with rent due on September 1, that’s an additional $1,500 to pay.

Because he can’t afford the car repairs, Fraser is staying at a friend's house in High Level and can't reconnect with his wife in Calgary.

“I don’t expect the GNWT to pay for my vehicle damage. However, had we known that there wouldn’t be support forthcoming, or so little of it, I would’ve chosen to leave by aircraft,” said Fraser. He says he is missing a month's income, about $4,500.

Fraser’s wife was in the cardiac ward for three weeks last April, he said, so they were already recovering from a financial hit. He feels the financial support announced by the GNWT is deaf to the needs of evacuees whose incomes have been wiped out, and who are struggling to tread water in a growing pool of evacuation-related expenses.

"I'm not sure that we have enough to make it through the start of next month," he said.

"The $750 from the Territories, the first time, is more-or-less a slap in the face," he said of the income disruption payment. The other $750 for travel, he added, "hits the other cheek."

“You hear all this about Northview prorating everything. Well, that’s great. But what if you don’t work for the GNWT and what if you don’t rent from Northview?”

With these challenges in mind, Fraser thanked the networks who have helped him.

"I am very grateful for the help that I've received, and I'm very grateful to the people of Alberta," he said. "But I really do think there are a ton of people like me who are falling through the cracks and who are looking at the impending date of September 1, thinking: 'My God, what do I do?'"

Chris Lepine believes billing agreements should be drafted between the GNWT and families that host evacuees, to offset the cost of care and services provided. “There is no emergency funding, as of this moment, that is sitting in the pockets of evacuees,” he said this week.

“I wish they’d make a compensation payment available for Alberta homeowners who accommodated evacuees,” said Beatrice Lepine. “It’s not fair. Hotels, commercial properties will receive compensation.”

N.W.T. finance minister Caroline Wawzonek addressed concerns regarding financial support to evacuees in a Facebook post earlier this week.

In short, she suggested the territory had very little money to work with and was prioritizing the cash as best it could.

"Given our limited revenue from a small population served over a vast geography, we also want to ensure that any evacuation programs we design are done in the hope of being able to access the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements," she wrote, referring to a federal program that gives money to province and territories suffering from disasters like wildfires.

"More individualized responses to this very human crisis are often better served by the non-profit sector, that can respond in a more targeted way than government," Wawzonek added.

"Having seen the incredible ability of the United Way N.W.T. to work with front-line partner organizations throughout this year's fire season," she continued, "the GNWT has made another donation to the United Way N.W.T. in the amount of $250,000."

The organizations funded by United Way N.W.T. are currently not clear. The charity has said it will release a list in its 2023-24 annual report.

Wawzonek stressed the availability of free accommodation and food in Alberta through evacuation centres, and the availability of free campsites.

"We are relying on Alberta's emergency services for delivery but the GNWT will ultimately be paying for all of this," she wrote. "These costs will be in the millions."

In the legislature on Monday, Wawzonek said the $100-million-plus bill for this year's wildfire season meant the N.W.T. government had “all but wiped out” its surplus – which is normally money spent on infrastructure rather than money saved – and is facing a “litany of problems.”

Wawzonek expects the cost of travel-related evacuee funding to approach $10 million. She said income support worth $750 had been expanded to include self-employed residents, public housing tenants are having their rent during evacuations forgiven, and foster families are receiving a $500 income supplement.

Lastly, she said the costs even in communities without evacuation orders could be significant.

"There is a working group set up to navigate the unfolding challenges of food security in small communities impacted by the reduced capacity for transport through Yellowknife," the finance minister wrote.

"Depending how all this unfolds, this could also be in the millions."

, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio