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On a Thursday in March two years ago, a small group of legislators gathered in a wood-paneled boardroom on the upper level of the NWT Legislative Assembly Building. They were there to review the progress of 911 implementation in the territory. 

One of them was Shane Thompson, the elected member for Nahendeh, a constituency in the southwest of the territory whose largest community, Fort Simpson, is home to about 1,250 people. Thompson, with a dusting of white hair and a white moustache, wearing a blue polo shirt, leaned over some printouts in front of him. He wanted to ask about addresses. Specifically, about putting them on homes and buildings in the smaller communities that didn’t already have them. 

“Is the government willing to help the communities put some money towards doing this?” he asked. “Because in some communities it’s ‘John’s house beside the green house, which is beside the purple house.’ So is there funding being allocated to develop a mapping system for each of the 33 communities?” 

Caroline Cochrane, now premier of the NWT but then minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, responded in the negative. Her department hadn’t put any money into community mapping. The communities can, and should, do it themselves, she said. 

“Even if we weren’t doing 911, this is something that communities need to be doing. It’s no longer OK to say, ‘The blue house behind John’s house.’” 

Nearly 20 months later, people in the Northwest Territories were finally able to dial 911, the widely-recognized number in North America to get help in an emergency. Except for Nunavut, which still doesn’t have 911, NWT was the last jurisdiction in Canada to adopt the three-digit emergency number when it went live last November. (The Yukon activated its 911 service in 2016.) How to implement this emergency lifeline in a territory with 30-plus remote communities and 11 official languages was what took government officials decades of debate and nearly two years of planning to figure out. 

“We’ve had quite a lot of issues around location,” says Ashley Geraghty, the NWT's manager and architect of 911. There still aren’t addresses on every home and building, he adds, but, “thankfully, some of our communities are small enough that it really hasn’t been a big problem outside the City of Yellowknife. Most of our responders know where John’s house is.” 

Photo courtesy Ashley Geraghty
NWT 911 architect Ashley Geraghty. 

Ahead of visiting the dispatch centre on the day 911 went live, reporters were given special directives. They could not view the call room if live calls were happening. They could record audio of interviews, but not of emergency calls, and they definitely could not record video. The call centre’s location in Yellowknife is secret, for safety reasons, and they could not publish or share how they got there. 

The NWT dispatch centre is small, with just one or two dispatchers working per shift, alongside a medical-response operator who handles air ambulances to the communities, and who can jump into a 911 call in a pinch. Hanging on the foyer walls are a code of ethics, a code of conduct, and Dene laws. “Share what you have,” reads the first tenet of these laws. “Help each other,” states the second. 

Unlike in large urban centres in Canada, NWT’s 911 service is “basic,” meaning the dispatcher won’t receive the caller’s location until the caller says it out loud. “Enhanced” 911 systems in many southern regions automatically feed operators a caller’s phone number, and cell towers triangulate the caller’s location to within 50 metres. In the NWT, says Geraghty, “If you call 911 and hang up, we don’t know who you are, we cannot send anybody. If you call us and you don’t know where you are, we can’t send anybody.” 

These limitations have been felt most acutely in Yellowknife, where newcomers are more likely to be unfamiliar with their surroundings. “If they hang up, we try to do a trace on the phone,” says Geraghty, “but that can take time.” 

Four months and five days after its launch, NWT’s 911 dispatch centre had taken 9,399 calls, of which 2,756 were for police, 402 were for medical response, and 83 were for fire. As of late March, the vast majority of those calls lasted less than 30 seconds, says Geraghty, but a more complex call—one involving multiple response teams or language interpretation—can take much longer. Geraghty says their longest call was “an hour and a bit.” There have been calls for animal bites, vehicle fires, gunshots, and at least one aircraft emergency. 

“Twenty per cent of all our cases are very critical, which is not normal,” says Geraghty. In the south, he says, critical cases make up about two per cent of calls. “We’re finding that people are just going to their health care provider on their own, or calling RCMP on their own, and not calling us until it’s really critical.” 

Of the calls that aren’t critical, at least in the traditional sense, Geraghty is remarkably tolerant. 

Take the person who called about a snowmachine. It wasn’t his snowmachine, but the snowmachine of an RCMP officer that he had borrowed to go hunting. The caller desperately wanted to return the keys, Geraghty says, but he couldn’t find the officer and, fearing trouble, called 911. “To that person, that was a big deal, right?” says Geraghty. “He gets his food by having access to that Ski-Doo, and it’s not his. So [it was] not a ‘down-south emergency,’ but to the person, he was pretty upset and we are happy to get connected to the RCMP and help him with that.” 

Geraghty is 47 years old and has worked with the territorial government for 19 years. He got his first job, with the NWT’s telemedicine program, just days after September 11, 2001. At the time, Geraghty’s wife was a flight attendant with the soon-to-go-under Canada 3000 airline, and by his telling, she wasn’t opposed to leaving her job. “She had had back-to-back serious incidents on planes where, you know, she was happy to still be alive.” Geraghty, then a manager of IT at a chemical company in Toronto, got an offer from the territorial government on a Thursday. The following Monday, the couple boarded a plane due north. For Geraghty, the decision to move was an easy one. As a boy, he’d read about the World War II-era Canol Trail through the Mackenzie Mountains, and the DEW Line spanning Canada’s High Arctic. “It just got my mind going and it seemed like every other magazine that came out, it was something about the NWT.”

When he arrived he quickly became a volunteer firefighter with the City of Yellowknife, an experience that sent Geraghty down a path that would lead to 911 in the NWT. The city’s fire hall also houses its ambulances, and one day a person called in about a child who had attempted suicide. The caller was trying to perform CPR but they were doing it wrong, says Geraghty, who was in the fire hall at the time though didn’t take the call himself. The dispatcher knew the proper way to perform CPR, but didn’t have the protocols or training to correct the caller’s technique and the child died. “[911] may not have made any difference at all, or it might have,” says Geraghty. “That was the first event for me where it bothered me that we kept saying, ‘Well, we don't need it in the North. That's not how it's done here. We're different.’ No, we're not.” 

The NWT’s 911 dispatchers are trained to provide “pre-arrival care.” They can talk a caller through CPR. They can explain how to administer Naloxone to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. They've even helped deliver babies. They’re not unlike 911 dispatchers elsewhere in Canada, but in the Northwest Territories, where a community like Tsiigehtchic has neither a full-time nurse nor an RCMP detachment, this kind of care can save lives. “We have saved, definitely, lives in four months,” says Geraghty, “and a lot of them.” 

Calls have come in to 911 from every NWT community, but according to some residents of the territory’s smaller locales, the introduction of 911 was of little importance. “I don’t think anybody’s using it. [They’re] probably not aware of it,” says James Andre, president of the elders committee in Tsiigehtchic, a community of 157 people at the confluence of the Arctic Red and Mackenzie Rivers. Andre says if someone in town needs police, they’ll just phone the nearest RCMP detachment (in Fort McPherson, an hour and 20 minute drive away). If they need medical assistance, he says, they’ll call the nurse or the hospital in Inuvik (two hours and 20 minutes up the Dempster Highway). 

“Nobody is using 911 here,” says Hanna Catholique, the senior administrative officer in Łutselk’e, a fly-in community on Great Slave Lake’s East Arm. “It’s not really helpful to us. If we want to talk to someone at the health centre, why would we talk to someone in Yellowknife if we could just phone the health centre directly?” 

Fear may also play a factor. Cases of police over-responding to 911 calls from Indigenous callers are not uncommon. In May, an Inuk woman in Montreal who phoned 911 over fears of self-harm was met with a squad of armed cops and a canine unit. If you can’t trust police enough to call them, it doesn’t matter how easy it is to dial their number. 

Photo courtesy Ashley Geraghty
A dispatcher inside the Yellowknife contact centre. 

Before 911 came to the Northwest Territories, each community had a seprate, seven-digit number for police and fire. They weren’t hard to remember. For most communities, it was the local prefix, plus 1111 for police or 2222 for fire (most of these numbers still work). But for new residents and tourists, the emergency call system was, unsurprisingly, far from intuitive. 

Perhaps the territory’s most notorious attempted 911 call is the one that was meant to help Freda Hope in 2001. The 31-year-old and her boyfriend were driving snowmobiles on Prosperous Lake near Yellowknife when Hope’s machine fell through the ice. She managed to pull herself out of the frigid waters and to walk, soaking wet, to get help at one of the cabins nearby—but no one was home. Hope froze to death on the doorstep. According to a CBC report, Hope’s boyfriend (whose name isn’t published) was on a snowmobile up ahead. He also had an accident—hitting a rock that flung him from his vehicle, breaking his leg. The boyfriend was discovered by another snowmobiler, who took him to the Ingraham Trail highway where they flagged down a pickup truck.

The group was, “on the phone dialing 911— and they’re from there, from Yellowknife—but they didn’t know that such a thing didn’t exist,” says Percy Kinney, who was the Northwest Territories’ chief coroner at the time of Hope’s death. To dial 911, he says, “is just so ingrained in society in general that so many people just assume it’s there until they need it, and then find out it’s not.” 

More recently there was the 2016 fire that razed Fitzgerald Carpeting in Yellowknife. The worker who accidentally started the blaze tried dialing 911, and when the call failed, drove to the fire hall to report the emergency in person. By the time crews made it back to the scene, it was too late. “When people need help, time is always of the essence, whether it's someone injured, or a house burning, or a robbery taking place, or whatever the crisis is,” says Kinney. “The sooner you can respond to it the better, and 911 helps.” 

Kinney, whose son, as it happens, is a 911 operator in Smith Falls, Ontario, says there were several deaths during his tenure in the late 1990s and early 2000s that led him to recommend the territory institute 911. There was a desire, he says, but it wasn’t “politically palatable.” At the time, elected officials didn’t want to roll out the number until each of the territory’s 33 communities could use it. In his view, this likely added years to the implementation process. “That’s a political decision. I understand that. I don’t like it. I know why they did it, to make it more palatable, but I think that it might have been a risky venture because I don’t know what’s happened in the last 10 years before they finally got it.” 

Photo courtesy Ashley Geraghty
Dispatchers Danika and Morgan.

On March 13, a little over four months after 911 went live, the federal government warned Canadians to avoid all international travel in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Workplaces shut down, gathering spaces were closed off and emergency services went into crisis mode. In a text, Geraghty told this reporter, “don’t come if you have flu symptoms.” It would be the last day, for the foreseeable future, in which journalists or any non-essential visitors would be allowed inside the NWT’s 911 dispatch centre. 

Danika Morin was working that day. After more than four months of fielding the territory’s distress calls, the 20-year-old says she’s yet to be “triggered” by anything she’s heard on the other end of the line. Morin moved to Yellowknife for the dispatcher job after finishing firefighter school at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. She knew no one in Yellowknife, but that didn’t faze her. “A lot of people would tell me I'm a lot like my dad,” she says. “Not that he's scary, but he's just, like, someone that you wouldn't want to mess around with.” She’s not the type to get queasy at the sight of blood. “Even, like, the accidents that have happened to me, they don’t gross me out whatsoever,” she says. Morin is bilingual. She speaks English and French, as do all the NWT dispatchers. However, a looming question—and an obvious challenge for a centralized emergency dispatch service for the whole Northwest Territories—is how 911 will handle a call in one of the territory’s nine official Indigenous languages. When the day arrives in which a call comes in Chipewyan (Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé), Inuvialuktun or North Slavey (Sahtúǫt’ı̨ne Yatı̨́),will the dispatchers be ready?

“The issues that everyone has, not just 911, is that there are a limited number of translators in the territory—or just in the world—of certain languages,” says Geraghty. “And they have lives, especially the ones in our communities. They hunt and trap. They’re not waiting at the phone for a call that may never come.” 

The NWT’s 911 uses a live interpretation service from a Winnipeg-based company called CanTalk. The dispatcher can pull in a CanTalk interpreter while the caller is on the line, but the process adds precious time. Maureen Mitchells, a former journalist and CanTalk’s founder and owner, says her company endeavours to connect the caller with the appropriate interpreter within 30 seconds. “It could take a little longer, but usually that’s the time frame,” she says. CanTalk is contracted to offer emergency call interpretation in all 11 of the Northwest Territories’ official languages, nine of which are Indigenous: Chipewyan (Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé), Cree, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey (Sahtúǫt’ı̨ne Yatı̨́), South Slavey (Dene Zhatıé) and Tłı̨chǫ (Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀). This means the company has on its roster at least one interpreter, and a back-up, for each language. But as of March 26, CanTalk has yet to interpret an NWT 911 call in an Indigenous language. The company had so-far only done four emergency interpretations for the territory: two in Cantonese, one in Mandarin and one in Korean. “It’s all been, it looks like, tourists for the most part,” says Mitchells, “or people that are new citizens or immigrants that are working within the Northwest Territories.” 

Geraghty believes that if a caller knows any English, they’re likely to use it in an urgent situation. “If we have to pull in a Cantonese translator for you, and you know that adds time to the call, and [if] it’s a cardiac arrest, you’re not going to kill the person you love,” he says. Unlike court proceedings or medical appointments, exchanges over 911 are supposed to be quick and straightforward. “So the instructions we give you are intended to be as simple as possible. We’re not teaching you to do rocket science over the phone, and it’s an emergency, so we don’t need much. What is the service? Where are you? And that’s good enough for us to get something coming to you.” 

But even with CanTalk, and even on a non-urgent call, the language issue can be tricky to navigate. Morin recalls taking a call in a language she didn’t recognize. She said CanTalk told her they needed to know, at the very least, if it was, for example, an Asian language. “I was like, ‘Well, I think it is, but I don't know if it’s Chinese, Cantonese.’” The caller ended up giving the phone to someone else who told 911 they were “pretty sure” the language was Cantonese. “So I went back to CanTalk and they got a Cantonese translator and it went from there,” says Morin. (Mitchells defends CanTalk’s “language facilitators” as adept at identifying languages and dialects so as to connect callers with the correct interpreter.) Luckily, the Cantonese call wasn’t life-or-death—the caller was a traveller whose luggage had been stolen.

Geraghty says if it came down to it, the 911 dispatcher would attempt to discern the caller’s location and pull a community member into the call. But this last-resort tactic doesn’t sit well with Shannon Gullberg, the NWT’s languages commissioner. Gullberg was a speech pathologist and a lawyer before she was appointed territorial languages commissioner for the first time in 2008. What Gullberg doesn’t want, she says, is for, say, a daughter to act as interpreter for her elder mother in a medical situation. “To me, that is one of the worst-case scenarios possible.” Apart from the inherent stress of a medical incident, and the fact that the daughter may not know the proper terminology, she says, “there may be things that that elder is not going to share when the family member’s around, either because they don’t want the family member to know, or because they don’t want to worry a family member.” In Gullberg’s view, though, remote interpretation such as that offered by CanTalk is also far from ideal. Some of the nuances of language are lost when interpretation is done over the phone. Facial expressions, Gullberg explains, send important subtextual messages from the interpreter to the language speaker, like, “do you follow?” 

Suzie Napayok, who lives in Yellowknife, has been an Inuktitut interpreter for 35 years. She’s done interpretation for the courts and the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. But Napayok doesn’t want to interpret for 911, for many understandable reasons. Health isn’t her area of expertise. She doesn’t know anatomical words. “You have to have a whole vocabulary of knowledge of whatever may come up,” she says. For her work, Napayok prefers to get as much information about the person and the subject matter as possible, ahead of time. On emergency calls, that’s obviously not possible. 

Napayok also worries an interpreter could be pulled into a call from someone they know, or to whom they’re related—a likelihood in the NWT, where Inuktitut, for example, is spoken in only about 95 households, according to the 2016 census. “Would you be in conflict? Or would it be more difficult for the interpreter to deal with it? There are so many unknowns,” says Napayok. 

The trauma nursing station that interpreters deal with can be particularly hard for Indigenous people, who are closely related to their community, she adds. “It’s hard for us to be programmed and say, ‘Ma’am, I need to know your name first, you’re not telling me correctly, I can’t hear you,’ that sort of thing. We’re very attached to human feelings, so we’re emotional sometimes,” she says. “Is an interpreter willing to go through that? There’s always a little bit of difference in our culture.”  
Mitchells, who has been running CanTalk for about 25 years, says increasingly, her customers are asking for Indigenous language interpretation options, even though they’re not actually using them that often. Part of the reason for this, she says, could be that language speakers who would choose to use interpretation aren’t being told their language is an option.

“Everybody is clamoring to say, ‘We're behind the Indigenous and the reconciliation, we want to be a part of it,’ and they do, truly, sincerely. But it is a falsehood when you say, ‘Let us make sure we have all these languages, so we can tell our clients we have all these languages, but they don't... inform [Indigenous language speakers] that these languages are available.”

Paying for interpretation ends up an empty gesture, basically, useful for politics and press releases, but those who might actually benefit from the service don’t seem to be the targets. In the Northwest Territories, the government has struggled to offer adequate interpretation in health care, the Legislative Assembly, and elsewhere, but in the months leading up to 911’s launch, Geraghty and other officials pushed the message through English-language media that the service would include Indigenous language interpretation. 

“It's a matter of paying more than lip service to it. It's actually, genuinely and authentically saying that this is available, these services are here to help you, we want you to use it,” says Mitchells. “That doesn’t happen as often as it should, in our opinion.” 

Photo courtesy Ashley Geraghty
The Dene laws posted inside the dispatch centre. 

By mid-April, people in the Northwest Territories and much of the world were quarantining in some fashion to slow the spread of coronavirus. In the Northwest Territories, which had five confirmed cases at that time, a new, three-digit number sprang forth: 811. The COVID-19 hotline offers information about the disease, self-isolation advice, and an easy means for residents to report anyone who isn't following the territory’s strict public health orders. “You have reached the COVID-19 information line,” answers an automated woman’s voice upon dialing. “Language interpretation is available.” 

At the dispatch centre in Yellowknife, five new call-takers—territorial government workers voluntarily redeployed from other departments—joined the ranks as part of the COVID-19 effort. “I spent some time talking to them about what they would experience: shift work and some tough days,” says Geraghty, “and they were still willing to join our team, which was incredibly brave.” In a month of training, the new recruits were brought up to speed on pre-arrival care, and in May, they were working shifts alongside a full-time dispatcher. Meanwhile, the pandemic has rattled the NWT’s small 911 team. Some staff had family members who passed away and couldn’t fly home or attend funerals. But they did go into work, says Geraghty. 

The end of May, though, brought a little light. A redeployed worker and her dispatcher-mentor helped deliver a baby over the phone, gaining entry into the exclusive “stork club” of 911 dispatchers who’ve done the same. It was the second baby delivered with the help of an NWT 911 dispatcher. 

“That’s really rare,” says Geraghty. “We only have 40,000 people here. We could go 10 years and not have the call volume of Vancouver, and they may have one [baby delivery] a year or so, with that level of call volume.” 

The call volume in the NWT, he says, is “weird.” People call 911 when it’s really critical, and when they’re “maybe a bit more intoxicated and can’t remember” the number for their local health centre. 

“We kind of have those two and not a whole lot in the middle, and that’s perfectly great,” says Geraghty. “Whatever the mix is, however people are getting help, we’re happy.”