Ecology North is a charitable, non-profit organization based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada that was formed in 1971 to support sound environmental decision-making on an individual, community and regional level. Ecology North maintains collaborative partnerships with a number of other local community and educational organizations to promote public education, sustainable living and climate change adaptation and mitigation on environmental initiatives. Jessie Golem recently sat down with project officer Richelle Castillo to talk learn more about Ecology North and their participation in the Green Resilience Project.
Jessie Golem (JG): Where are you located?
Richelle Castillo (RC): We are in Yellowknife. Northwest Territories.
JG: I’ve never been to the Northwest Territories, [but] I’ve really wanted to go.
RC: It’s great for a visit. There are people who become “lifers” and fall in love with the community and end up staying. But it takes a certain kind of individual—for instance, today it’s -45C outside and sunny. Which is a normal day here in January. It’s a very dry cold as well, as opposed to the wet and humid cold you find in southern Ontario. But it’s difficult here in wintertime because we don’t get a lot of sunlight. The sun will rise at 10am and set by 3pm. If I stay inside and work all day, I can completely miss seeing any sunlight. So I try to make sure that I get outside, even just for a little bit, to catch some sunlight. Other than that, it’s a beautiful community. And I really like the territories in general. I was fortunate enough to have a summer job that allowed me to travel to different small communities in the north. As long as you’re willing to put yourself out there in the community, there are a lot of great things to get involved in. Because it’s such a small community, it’s very tight-knit—everyone knows everyone. If you’re at the Edmonton airport, you can recognize who’s flying up to Yellowknife. One of my colleagues just came up here from Toronto and is starting to realize that people are just two degrees of separation from each other [here], as opposed to six.
JG: I grew up in a small town, so I get it. But tell me more about the work that you’re doing.
RC: I work for Ecology North, a charitable nonprofit organization here in Yellowknife. We are one of the environmental-based organizations in the territory. There are a lot of other NGOs that focus on energy, conservation, and sustainability. But when it comes to sound environmental decision-making in the community, and here in the territory, we’re the largest and oldest organization. We’ve been here for 50 years. We’re based in Yellowknife but still have a lot of great connections across NWT and the other territories. We’ve done programs that… involve all three territories. We focus our priorities on five different things: local food production, water stewardship, climate action, environmental education and waste reduction.…We focus a lot on youth education and advocacy as well. We make sure we’re educating people, advocating for the environment and hosting events that align with those goals and vision.
JG: I can see how Ecology North and the Green Resilience Project are good fits for each other.
RC: It really worked out. I remember in our conversation about whether or not we were going to take on the project, we all agreed that it wouldn’t make sense for us [not to]. The goals for our organization and the Project align.
JG: What are some of the environmental climate change issues being experienced by people in Yellowknife and the surrounding communities?
RC: We focus on holistic environmental health, so we touch upon just about anything and everything…Right now, the territories are experiencing climate change [more drastically than other parts of Canada]. We’re experiencing a lot of flooding and permafrost thawing. One of the communities up on the Arctic coast is actually on track to be submerged in water as levels continue to rise. In another community, their church, cemetery, and health centre rests on top of thawing permafrost and are vulnerable to slumping caused by permafrost thaw. We’re working with the community and other partners to stabilize the slope.
JG: A community having to relocate because it’s sinking or a church collapsing are more direct [climate change impacts] , less theoretical, unlike what we often hear when we talk about climate change.
RC: It’s not theoretical, it’s very much happening now. We’ve had to evacuate communities. Last summer when the Mackenzie River flooded, the community of Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́, or Fort Simpson, and the communities of Jean Marie River/Tthets’ék’ehdélı̨ First Nation had to be evacuated because of the rising levels of water.
JG: I remember reading about that.
RC: I talked about Yellowknife being a tight-knit community, but the territories themselves [also] work together when these situations happen. We’re very much like one big community —there’s 40,000 people in the entire territory and 20,000 in the core city of Yellowknife.
JG: When I’m hearing about these climate change disasters and hearing about communities being displaced, [what role does] does income security or income resilience [play]? How do people pivot when they have to evacuate their homes?
RC: Well, that’s hopefully what we’re trying to find out. With the upcoming conversation, because it’s remote, we’ve been discussing the possibility of opening it up to include those other communities. Because at the end of the day, my perspective wouldn’t be the same as somebody who actually had to leave their community. I’m looking forward to hopefully talking to somebody who was actually there for it.
JG: I feel like the answer will continue to change as we see the climate crisis continue.
RC: It would be great to have those other communities [participate] because, to be honest, living in the city of Yellowknife is quite a breeze compared to some of the small communities when it comes to resources and availability. If the highways were to close down, the city of Yellowknife [would still be accessible] because of the airport. But only small planes can land in some of the more remote communities. Some communities are drive-in only, so if the highway came crumbling down, those communities [would be] affected much differently than Yellowknife
JG: What are you looking forward to in these conversations? I think you sort of answered some of that question when we were talking about income security, but what else are you looking forward to learning?
RC: I haven’t advertised this project at all, and I already have people emailing me wanting to be a part of the conversation. So that kind of eagerness is already shaping up to make a good conversation. Even if there [are] only ten people participating, I know that three hours might not be enough—they could talk for eight hours or more and be fine. From what I’ve been hearing, it sounds like people that are very keen on sharing their stories coming from different walks of life. For me, having a bit of that personal connection with participants [is important], regardless of the project we’re doing. For instance, we hosted a young leader summit for youth. And then we also get involved in a city daycare for young kids. Building on those personal connections is always the most exciting for me, because everybody’s experiences are always very different. I’m excited to learn more about that. I’m also excited to hear from Indigenous voices and different perspectives on what’s going on in their communities.
What’s great about the Green Resilience Project is that people who have no place or platform to be able to share their stories are seeing this project to be that right and safe place to be able to share. And not just to a small circle, [as] this [project] is national.
JG: Another thing I like about the conversations is that we’re not dictating what to say. We want to hear from people. And even if what they have to say might be uncomfortable, we still need to learn this because it’s still vitally important. What does resilience look like in Yellowknife, and in the Northwest Territories? I say this acknowledging that maybe resilient isn’t the right word to use.
RC: I think there’s a bit of a negative connotation to the word “resilient,” as if something negative has to happen before you can be resilient. When you were talking earlier, the word that comes to mind for me is strength. Resilience is kind of like a reflection of your strength….With strength, you’re strong in your community regardless of having to overcome odds or not.
JG: it’s something I’m continuously chewing on and percolating on, especially as I’m having these conversations and meeting all these people.
RC: There’s a question that I want to throw your way. When the Green Resilience Project is completed, and the conversations are over and the report is done, what do you see as the action after the conversation?
JG: Where we’re actually trying to answer that question right now. The big action will be to provide a report to the government about all these conversations and [share] what people are saying. There will be a wrap-up event as well, but after that, we’re trying to see what the next steps are, if any. My personal hope is that there’s an opportunity for these communities to be able to learn and share knowledge with one another. I want everybody in the country to know about this and about these conversations. It’s vitally important, and we live in such a vastly diverse country with so many different people and issues and communities that I think we’d be stronger if we learned from each other.
RC: For sure. Yeah. Thank you.
More information can be found about Ecology North here.