When Melinda Laboucan got word that northern communities were under evacuation orders, she immediately took action to support evacuees in the Edmonton area through her organization, Goba Care.
The Edmonton-based non-profit launched in 2021, offering culturally appropriate services and supports to northerners who travel south for medical needs. These services were at the forefront of Goba Care’s work with evacuees, delivering essential resources and care to northerners in need.
“We got this support and help. There was a big relief for me, because I knew that I no longer had to worry about getting the basics,” said Julie Thrasher, an evacuee who utilized Goba Care’s services.
“It took a big weight off my shoulders because I’m normally not one to reach out and ask for help,” Trasher said, adding that usually, she finds she herself is “the one that’s helping people and doing things.”
Goba Care distributed hotel-friendly food, toiletries, clothing, gift cards, and support for children’s needs, all free of charge. For those with access to a kitchen, Laboucan shared traditional meats from her family in Fort Good Hope.
“We immediately opened up our doors here at my location to have anybody come through and pick out what you need,” said Laboucan. Since Goba Care’s Facebook announcement offering services to evacuees, she says more than 1,000 northerners have passed through their doors.
Those services were especially necessary for Thrasher, who left Yellowknife under its August 16 evacuation order with little more than essentials. When she and her two adult daughters arrived in Edmonton, they were provided accommodation at a hotel but spent more than two weeks paying for everything else – food, toiletries, medical supplies and clothing – because they were not aware many of those things were being offered to evacuees for free by the City of Edmonton.
“The money that we left with, that’s what we had in savings,” said Thrasher. “When you’re paying for everything except a roof over your head, that takes a lot out of a mother, when you’re wondering about other people and worrying if they’re OK.”
During the evacuation, Thrasher’s focus was on her family’s safety. It was during this traumatic period that Thrasher accepted Goba Care’s services. Now, the impacts of the evacuation are sinking in.
“You’re not thinking: Gee, I only brought two sets of clothes. You’re thinking: Thank goodness we’re out of here. Thank goodness we’re safe and we have money for food and we have a roof over our head. But then, when you sit down at night and you’re looking around you,” Thrasher recalled, “you’re wondering if your house is safe and if you’re going to go home to anything.”
Throughout the emergency, Goba Care continued to help clients requiring support for medical needs. In order to meet the high demands on the business during the evacuation, volunteers were enlisted to deliver supplies to evacuees without vehicles, triage calls, and help connect evacuees to services.
Two weeks before the evacuation orders were announced, Erika Kritsch was in the territory visiting friends and family. Kritsch grew up in Yellowknife and spent most of her life in the North. Once she returned home in Edmonton, Kritsch heard of the evacuations and decided to volunteer at Goba Care.
She calls that an extension of “the classic northern thing where you come from a small community, you provide support to your community as a result.”
“I had a very proud northern moment,” she said, “where I was like: Everybody’s going to be OK. We’re going to figure this out and everybody’s going to take care of each other.”
Kritsch began receiving calls from band members in Fort Good Hope, her home community, who had been evacuated from other parts of the territory. As an extension of her work with Goba Care, Kritsch worked to connect them with the Sahtu Secretariat.
“It’s just trying to make yourself available for whatever those calls need,” she said, describing issues ranging from having no food to worn-out shoes.
“There’s never been an evacuation like this, at this magnitude, from the Northwest Territories – literally the road on fire while people are trying to drive out.
“And so even though it’s uncomfortable to be answering phone calls and running around the city and whatnot, you know, it’s a fraction compared to what the folks that need help are feeling.”
While Goba Care was a hub for front-line services, it also formed a network helping northerners to gather in difficult times.
“I’m from Fort Good Hope and so living down here in the city becomes very lonely sometimes,” said Laboucan. “You miss community support and community events and gatherings.”
In late August, the Bent Arrow Healing Society held a Dene drum dance and another was held at River Cree the week after for evacuees. These events were significant opportunities for community members to reconnect, centre themselves, and check in on one another after leaving home. Goba Care supplied food at the first drum dance.
“Down here, especially, our Dene drummers from the Northwest Territories – you never see that. So to see that, it brought lots of good memories from back home,” said Laboucan.
“The two drum dances that they had – to see that, it was very grounding for everybody … a lot of the NWT people who attended really felt grounded, and especially to our Elders.”
Community gatherings like drum dances were key to well-being at a stressful and uncertain time, Thrasher agreed.
“Having all those events brought people closer together, grounded them, and reminded them it’s OK – you’re gonna be OK, and that people really do care,” said Thrasher. “It was bringing people back down to earth.”
What’s to come
Having seen her company’s ability to deliver emergency services on the ground during an evacuation, Laboucan wants to extend Goba Care’s mandate and support more clients.
“I really want to advocate for our NWT and Nunavut patients that are here in Edmonton at Larga, that are here for longer periods of stay. We really need to have a mental health councillor located up at Larga,” said Laboucan, referring to the Larga Edmonton accommodation service for northerners on medical travel.
Goba Care offers some services at Larga Edmonton, such as bi-weekly sewing circles, but Laboucan believes more mental health support is needed for northern patients.
She said there are also requests to expand to different locations, and she hopes to one day offer services in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Grande Prairie.
“My next goal is to have our own Goba Care building here in Edmonton. Out of this building, I would like to offer many different programs to help support our northerners and … to target our homelessness, and murdered and missing Indigenous women,” said Laboucan.
“We have families that are falling through the gaps here in Alberta. One of the big ones is getting that support: how do I find that support here in this big system?”
A fear of falling through that system has been a theme brought to her by medical travellers Goba Care has helped since launching in October 2021, she said.
“We’re here to help. We’re here to help support them through the system here. And I think that’s what motivates me.”
By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Sep 19, 2023