The passengers were shaken awake as their flight finally made its turbulent landing in Edmonton. It was 2:30 a.m., and rain and hail were pelting against the windows of the Canadian Forces Hercules C-130 that had brought them here. For some of the passengers — 57 long-term-care residents of AVENS: A Community for Seniors and a baker’s dozen of support workers — it would have been another disorienting moment in a long, chaotic day, especially for those with dementia or other cognitive issues. But most, likely all, probably felt exhaustion more than anything else. “It was not a typical day,” Daryl Dolynny, CEO of AVENS, would later say.
That would be an understatement. But it doesn’t mean AVENS, which provides long-term care to NWT residents and affordable housing for seniors who live independently—wasn’t prepared. The organization had long-standing protocols and procedures for emergencies that might require removing residents from the facility, possibly to other communities. Prolonged winter power outages. Severe damage to the building. Extended periods of smoke from forest fires. Even fire itself.
Moreover, the staff and residents were no strangers to emergency management. They had already come through the COVID-19 pandemic safely and in general good health. They were also familiar with receiving frail evacuees, notably during the 2022 flooding in Hay River and through the evacuations from other communities in the summer of 2023.
But the scale of the job on this day was of a whole other order.
The NWT government issued the evacuation order for Yellowknife on the evening of Aug. 16, but the challenge for AVENS had become apparent a couple weeks earlier. Around the end of July, the NWT’s department of health and social services put the facility on notice that, if evacuation became necessary, AVENS would have to be self-sufficient. The government, which funds AVENS, simply didn’t have the capacity among its multitude of obligations to manage the job for an independent operation.
It was was unexpected — even shocking — news but there was no time to debate. The AVENS team swung into high gear, developing a new plan for a previously unimaginable situation in short order — working with airlines to arrange for flights, arranging accommodation in Edmonton, and marshalling essential equipment, and more — while doing their best to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the residents.
As the fires moved closer to Yellowknife over the ensuing days, the risk of evacuation increased. By the start of Aug. 16, it was clearly inevitable. Despite assurances from local and territorial officials that the city was not at risk, Yellowknifers were leaving in droves—including a large proportion of the public service. AVENS wasn’t immune and was operating with a skeleton staff to maintain service standards. Dolynny decided to make the call and reached out to the airline AVENS had contracted with to fly out residents and staff to Edmonton.
The first sign of trouble ahead came a short time later. The airline called Dolynny back and told him, the NWT government’s emergency management organization had taken control of all flights in anticipation of the evacuation order that would be issued several hours later. Commercial flights were being cancelled. AVENS would have to regroup and come up with another plan.
At the end of the call, Dolynny immediately began dialling for help. He found it a short while later in the office of Shane Thompson, the territory’s minister for environment as well as municipal affairs. Thompson put Dolynny in contact with the territory’s emergency measures organization, which relayed the situation at AVENS to the Canadian Armed Forces. By afternoon, the CAF confirmed it was flying a Hercules to Yellowknife to carry the facility’s long-term care residents to Edmonton. The plane would land in three hours.
With the evacuation back on track, AVENS staff began checking in with independent-living residents to ensure they had suitable plans with friends and family to ensure their own safety. Meanwhile, they distributed individualized go-bags to long-term care residents containing medications, personal toiletries, and a change of clothes. (Dolynny had bought the entire inventory of kid-sized knapsacks at the local Walmart a week earlier in case an evacuation was called.)
Outside, small groups of residents began boarding buses for the drive to the CAF 440 Squadron Hangar at the Yellowknife airport, where they would meet their flight. Many required wheelchairs or walkers, making for a complex ferrying operation that required 11 trips and wasn’t finished until 8:30 p.m.
To help pass the time at the hangar, Canadian Forces members — roughly 30 were on hand to assist the operation — provided food, drinks, and blankets. A few brought guitars, and the crew entertained the AVENS residents as if they were caring for their own grandparents. The wheels on the Herc finally went up at around 12:30 a.m., following a delicate boarding process that took almost as long as the task of getting everyone to the hangar. Adding to the concerns were forecasts of rain, wind, and hail that would make conditions for air travel difficult further south.
Dolynny, however, was not among the residents and 14 support workers on board the Hercules. He was still in Yellowknife juggling a fresh set of challenges, starting with two residents who could not be accommodated on the packed aircraft and needed overnight care. (They stayed at Stanton Territorial Hospital and joined the rest the following day.) Meanwhile, with an arrival time finally known, he needed to arrange transport to take the AVENS group to the two hotels that had been booked to receive them in Leduc, near the Edmonton airport.
There was more to come. Upon arrival, it was quickly discovered that more security staff was needed at the hotel than the number estimated and reserved earlier in the month. Without them, AVENS management and staff would be unable to monitor all of the building’s accessibility points, an essential task in keeping AVENS residents secure, especially those who would be easily disoriented. The firm supplying the security staff stepped up swiftly and, with relief, the issue was soon resolved.
As the night finally started to calm for the residents, the AVENS team still had their hands full. There were still 26 wheelchairs in Yellowknife that couldn’t fit on the CAF flight and two residents in need of transport to Edmonton. The AVENS facility also had to go through a full shutdown, and more. Dolynny worked through to the end of the next day and beyond. Finally, at 3 a.m. — some 40 hours later with a maybe four-hour nap — he got into his car and headed out on the now-empty highway to meet his family near Behchokǫ̀, where they were waiting for him on the other side of the fire line.
After 31 days, the residents and staff of AVENS returned to Yellowknife on Air Tindi, a local charter company with deep roots in the community. Life settled back into its regular rhythms, so much so that on a rain-swept afternoon in mid-October AVENS resident George Greyeyes would look back on the experience with a sort of fondness. He recalled the comfort of the large room he shared with another person and the more than satisfying food and amenities. Best of all, he was able to visit with his daughters and grandchildren who travelled from Saskatchewan, the kind of bonus enjoyed by many residents. “There was a nice big yard out front,” he says. “When my daughters came to visit me, they brought the children who were running around in the grass beside me. It was pretty cute, all right.”
Of course, Greyeyes wasn’t talking about the hotels where everybody landed on that first night. It was emergency shelter, and the management, staff and security firm stepped up when it mattered most. Still, AVENS management — somewhat scattered in Alberta and communicating moment by moment via a text-message group and regular touch-point meetings — needed to find proper care facilities.
Working around the clock over the first three days, Frances Marshall, AVENS’ director of care, coordinated with Alberta Health Services and Bayshore Home Health, a homecare services company, and worked tirelessly to find alternatives. In short order, they located space at a community-living complex for seniors in Leduc, called Telford Mews. For residents in need of greater care, there was the Waterford, an independent-living home in northwest Edmonton that also had a dementia-care unit that was at the tail end of a renovation project.
Finding space, however, was only the start of the challenge. AVENS team also had to turn it from four walls and empty rooms into care environments that met the needs of their residents — and do so in an instant. They scrambled to acquire everything from sheets and bedding to televisions and radios. Dolynny even turned to Amazon to find a call-bell system so residents could page AVENS staff if needed.
But life in Edmonton did find a comfortable routine — and it did so at a remarkable pace, despite the turbulent path. Sitting in the family room back at AVENS, surrounded by pumpkins in preparation for a Halloween project, Greyeyes recalled a fond memory of a friend, Mr. Dolynny. “He lent me his radio. I still have it.”
Greyeyes’ comfort is a testament to AVENS management and staff — and the organizations and businesses that supported them — through a crisis. They recall a harrowing experience, and there are many lessons to be built into future planning. On this rainy October day, however, they could perhaps breathe easier, at least for a few moments as George Greyeyes smiled through windows and watched the world outside his home.