Some evacuees who pre-registered for flights home to Yellowknife say they’re waiting days for a confirmed flight while planes come and go without them.

Northwest Territories residents in Edmonton and Calgary have reported waits of almost a week, pre-registering for territorial government flights home on the opening day of availability – Saturday last week – but hearing nothing since. 

They have no idea when they’ll be told they can come home, and the N.W.T. government says its flights will end on Sunday.

As concern mounted on Friday, the territorial government partly jettisoned its own pre-registration system, telling remaining Calgary evacuees to head to the Radisson Hotel on 36 St NE for pickup and transport to waiting planes, whether or not they had confirmed places.

If you tried calling the N.W.T. government’s flight confirmation helpline – 1-888-384-4830 – and your call did not go through, you’re not alone. Qillulaaq Arngna’naaq phoned the number twice to get some clarity on the timing of her flight, but never heard back.

As far as she is aware, the sole flight from her host community of Whitehorse departed on Thursday morning without anyone telling her, despite registering days earlier.

“The first time I called, I was hung up on,” Arngna’naaq said. The second time, she was asked to provide her name, email, phone number and baggage details but a follow-up call or message never came.

Arngna’naaq said she received no email about her flight registration, despite the pre-registration webpage stating she should receive an email confirmation. (The GNWT later changed the webpage’s wording to state that if you used the online form, you’d only receive a confirmation webpage, not an email.)

Arngna’naaq, staying at a Whitehorse hotel, learned there was a Thursday morning flight through a friend. The GNWT had previously stated only one flight would leave Whitehorse to bring evacuees home. Arngna’naaq had no idea whether she was meant to be on that plane. 

“There has been zero support for individuals that were unable to drive themselves through the wildfire,” she said.

Arngna’naaq said she learned of the Thursday flight hours before it was due to leave, with no certainty she would be allowed on board. Flying at short notice is difficult when accompanied by her young child, she said. Ultimately, to avoid the risk of not getting a GNWT flight home, she booked a scheduled flight for Saturday.

“There are a lot of things I have to do before I can pack up and go with a toddler,” she said.

“I was preparing myself for 24 hours’ notice … there’s no way I would be able to do all the things I need to do to leave before a 9am flight.”

The pre-registration form for flights back to Yellowknife opened on September 2, four days before the area’s evacuation order was lifted. The GNWT has stressed pre-registration is necessary to figure out which passengers belong on which flight manifest, arrange aircraft and get everyone home efficiently, but Arngna’naaq isn’t the only one saying days have gone by with no word back about a flight.

Asked what people can do when they don’t get a response, territorial emergency management organization spokesperson Jay Boast said the GNWT was, inevitably, experiencing a high volume of calls and requests.

“We certainly have heard that people have been having issues in terms of confirmation of the registration, and we have our IT team is trying to sort that out,” Boast said on Friday morning. 

“We understand that people are feeling like a long period of time is going by before they are hearing about their planes. You will be hearing about your flight when you are put on a manifest. We do ask you to be ready – to be in a position to be ready to go – when you get the information about your plane.”

He earlier said: “Just because flights are leaving, doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to be on a flight.”

Asked on Friday if the GNWT will make sure people get home if they pre-register appropriately but simply never hear back and miss their intended flight, Boast responded: “Yes.”

Evacuee Anne Walsh, who pre-registered to fly from Calgary, called the lack of communication about her flight registration “ridiculous.”

“Silly me is expecting that someone is going to get in touch with me,” she said.

Like Arngna’naaq, Walsh said she also emailed the GNWT for assistance and did not get a response.

“It’s not right to not at least have an email, or to know that someone has received your application … Just a confirmation, ‘We have you on our list,’ or something,” she said.

Walsh, staying with her cousin, said while things have been relatively easy for her, she couldn’t imagine the situation for other evacuees worrying that they may be asked to leave hotel rooms on September 8.

The territorial government had originally stated September 8 would be the check-out day for any evacuees staying in assigned accommodation in Alberta.

While one evacuee said on Friday their hotel had extended their stay until September 22 at the latest, the situation across the province was not clear.

“The Friday, September 8 issue is really a Calgary issue, from my understanding,” said Boast that morning.

“For those Calgary folks, I would expect that they would be hearing today about a plane.”

GNWT scraps system in Calgary

By late morning on Friday, volunteers and evacuees on the ground in Calgary reported being told to head for the Radisson hotel on 36 Street NE, whether or not they had received a flight confirmation. 

“Someone from Yellowknife said ‘Get your luggage, go to the Radisson hotel.’ Now I have a wristband saying 2:30pm flight. So I may get home today,” one evacuee reported. “That’s progress.”

As this article was published at noon on Friday, the territorial government made a major shift in its messaging by confirming this change of plan.

“Evacuees in Calgary waiting for a flight to Yellowknife, go to the Radisson Hotel at 6620 36 St NE to check in for a flight. Go there as soon as possible, whether you pre-registered or not,” the territory wrote, abandoning its pre-registration system.

“We have flights going out Friday and Saturday available for you.

“Bring all your belongings. Bring your pets in a crate. If you were staying at a hotel, check out at the hotel front desk. If you were staying at a hotel, get a free taxi chit at the hotel front desk.”

The territory added: “If there is not enough space for everyone on today’s flights, we’ll get you another hotel room.”

Anyone in another Alberta community was told to stay put and continue using the pre-registration website.

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

By Aastha Sethi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 08, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories