(Photo of a wildfire in Northern Sask.)

By: Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com

Friendship centres “always seem to be one of those main points of contact, especially for our Indigenous communities that are going through these evacuations,” said Sheila Moerkoert of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre.

With more than 200 wildfires raging in the Northwest Territories, the territorial government declared a Territorial State of Emergency Aug. 15. With evacuation notices, alerts and orders issued, residents started coming south to Alberta.

On Wednesday, the capital city of Yellowknife and the neighbouring First Nations communities of Ndilo and Dettah were ordered to leave by noon Friday. That numbers approximately 22,000 residents.

On Aug. 14, Kátł’odeeche First Nation declared a full evacuation with residents heading to Hay River and Yellowknife. That same day Hay River was forced to evacuate to Yellowknife.

Other communities that have been evacuated include Salt River First Nation, Fort Smith, Enterprise, and Jean Marie River.

For Moerkoert, who has family in N.W.T., it was personal. She immediately approached the centre’s executive director and asked to play an active role in what was sure to follow.

“There’s so many familiar faces. Family and friends. This has been something really near and dear to my heart. I just want to, during such a hard time, be able to help everyone,” said Moerkoert, who is a database administrator at the centre.

At this point, Moerkoert’s home community of Fort Resolution, located near Hay River and Fort Smith, has not been evacuated. While that brings some relief to Moerkoert, she says social media postings indicate it’s only a matter of time as the community has been cut off from food deliveries.

On Monday, Grande Prairie and High Level began hosting the first evacuees from the territory. Friendship centres in both communities started being a haven for Indigenous residents.

It’s been a bit of a ramping-up process for the High Level centre, says executive director Amanda Dachuk, as the centre just recently ended its three-month support of evacuees from Fox Lake. The Little Red River Cree Nation community was the most heavily hit Indigenous community in Alberta with more than 100 homes and more than 200 structures destroyed in wildfires in May and June.

The Fox Lake evacuees have been dispersed elsewhere.

And even though the High Level centre is undergoing renovations and half the staff is on vacation, Dachuk said, “It’s no big deal. I mean, we’re used to it. We just do what needs to be done.”

The centre operates the foodbank and has been supplying food to evacuees, along with hygiene products, towels, blankets, diapers and milk.

Cultural supports have also been made available, with many Indigenous evacuees using the centre as a gathering place for smudging and praying.

“They just need a place for talking, for people to hear their stories. A place to sit,” said Dachuk.

The Grande Prairie Friendship Centre is also a space for smudging and prayer, says Moerkoert, and this weekend it will open to evacuees only for a moose-stew-and-bannock supper on Saturday and a ham-and-mashed-potatoes supper on Sunday. Dancing and drumming will also be welcomed.

The centre has also been doing outreach with the community kitchen, cooking traditional meals and delivering them to the hotels that Elders are being lodged in.

Moerkoert says that on the first night the friendship centre delivered meals to the Alliance Church, which was serving as the reception centre for the evacuees.

“They were so grateful just to have that home-cooked meal. So many of them after having eaten came up and just said, ‘Thank you so much. We appreciate all of your help. The food was delicious.’ They were so appreciative of us coming and delivering the food,” she said.

Moerkoert added that many evacuees had never driven in a city before, so volunteers drove the evacuees to their hotels.

The friendship centre has also opened a space for families “to hang out and play.” Diapers and babies’ and children’s clothing are also available.

Evacuees in hotels near the centre are also walking over for free meals throughout the day.

While the services offered by the friendship centre are opened to all evacuees, Moerkoert says the majority of those who have used the services are Indigenous.

Registration centres for evacuees have also been opened in St. Albert and Leduc, two communities in close proximity to Edmonton.

Deborah Andrews, the executive director for the Alberta Native Friendship Centre in Edmonton says they have received “some calls” and have been providing supports, such as emergency food hampers and clothing. She adds that an Elder is available to help with cultural supports.

Reception centres for N.W.T. evacuees have been opened in other Alberta communities, including Calgary, Red Deer, Fox Creek, Valleyview and Fort McMurray.

Windspeaker.com reached out to Alberta Public Safety and Emergency Services, which is handling the evacuation on the province’s end, to find out what services, including mental health, are being offered to Indigenous evacuees. We did not hear back by deadline.

However, on X (formerly Twitter), Minister Mike Ellis stated that he was working with his federal counterparts to “discuss how we can work together to make sure the residents who have been evacuated from their homes get the supports needed during this crisis.”