I haven't been posting anything for a while. The physical mode of working on the farm and managing this off-grid life has at times outweighed the digital mode of online presence. It's been a hot and long and very intense summer and growing season. And near the end of it, our city got evacuated because the wild fires were closing in from almost all sides.
Here is my story to offer. It's from this side of the evacuation. And from the perspective of the ever de-prioritized field of feeding people, emergency response kitchen style. It's definitely about resilience, coming together as a team, processing locally grown food and reflecting on different forms of leadership.
August 31st 2023
Yellowknife received evacuation notice on Wednesday evening, Aug 16th, due to the wild fires surrounding and encroaching on the city with winds expected to have the potential to carry sparks and flames dangerously close. The people of Yellowknife had until Friday at noon to leave.
After much discussion and weighing out options my family decided to not evacuate. For one I have a giant garden to look after and despite being advised against it, the escape route on to the giant lake at our door step in a decent sized fishing boat seemed like a reasonable plan. So we loaded up chickens, rabbits, cat and dog, borrowed our friend’s trailer and set up camp in town at the government dock beside my son’s dad’s boat on Friday, Aug 18th.
Though instead of tending to the garden at prime harvest season (95% of my customers had left anyways) I walked in through the open door at Fishy People Restaurant very early the next morning, Sat Aug 19th, to learn that chef Niki had just agreed to feeding over 200 people during what the emergency response situation in Yellowknife was going to be over the next few weeks. No-one else was around, so I asked if I could help.
Two more random folks showed up that morning, and two more in the afternoon, plus camp chef Ray who was going to assist Niki with the cooking. And just like that we had a team of volunteers, ready to do whatever needed doing to figure out the logistics of the operation (how to feed essential workers had not been taken into account when ordering the evacuation, there simply didn’t appear to be a plan!), the kitchen prep and clean up, food prep and the wrapping, packing and serving of up to 200 at first and soon 300 lunches and dinners, all with the extraordinary and professional calm and expertise of Niki’s lead.
Two days after working in Niki’s restaurant we were all moved into the Nova Hotel Kitchen, where we organized, cleaned and called around to find more volunteers to join the team. (50 some firefighters who we were then feeding at the hotel, showed up at 9 p.m. that same evening to deep clean the kitchen to make it safe and pleasant/grease free to work in!) We needed around 14 full time positions to run the early morning breakfast shift through to the late evening dinner.
We came together from all walks of life, accountants, teachers, gardeners, moms, dads, massage therapists, world travellers, you name it. Only one food safe certificate, but a whole lot of common sense, resourcefulness and caring about how the frontline firefighters and construction guys, all putting their paid or unpaid time in to protect the city from the surrounding forest fires, were getting fed well.
Niki, who had accepted this undertaking with no initial idea what kind of contract this would shape into or what kind of help she’d be getting, embraced whatever skills we brought to the table and set an incredible example of leadership, collectedness, hard work and steady focus on the goal of putting good and sustaining food into those bellies and make the most out of the situation that might have overwhelmed the more feeble spirited. She made meal plans with lots of meat until she got word of more folks asking for more veggies. (She also prepared extra gluten free, dairy free, egg free and vegan meals for John Mutford’s city crew;) That and the harvest season at hand sparked her call out to local commercial growers and backyard gardeners for home grown quality produce, which arrived at the Nova Hotel kitchen every day since. About 50% of all veggies cooked and cut for salads and sandwiches were locally grown, which made the food so much tastier and so much more fun to prepare.
She managed to order fish from a local fisherman. She used fresh and dried herbs to flavour the meats. She generously added micro greens for good measure and nutrition. And all those meat based meals and everyday lunches she infused with variety and carefully balanced the base meat and potato comfort food patterns with a culinary playfulness and passion that brought out the best in everyone to really put their heart into the kitchen work. We found 2 ladies doing the lunch and dinner service out front, and soon the atmosphere changed from eat and run into a social place everyone could relax into (even chef Niki would occasionally go and mingle)! To avoid food waste we installed a fridge in the hallway to stack leftovers and snacks for people to grab. We put edible flowers in the take out dinner trays and on the salads. And we sorted scraps into chicken food, compost and dog food buckets some of us took home to dispose of responsibly.
Yet what I appreciated most about this work atmosphere and about Niki’s leadership was her integrity and ability to bring calm to chaos, to patiently navigate internal and many external dynamics, and to insert kindness and respect and open mindedness into a work field that traditionally functions on a more hierarchal basis reflected in low pay jobs and systems of inequality and stress filled environments.
Instead here was a team that, with Niki’s help and guidance, proved very practical, spontaneously intentional, resourceful, together, focussed, and full of smiles.
As well as tears.
After the emotional highs at Niki’s restaurant from being able to pull 200 and some meals out of seemingly nowhere during the first two chaotic days of emergency response, with foods, supplies, an additional fridge and drivers to distribute the food, and whatever help needed appearing whenever it was needed, with nothing communicated to Niki, and with no-one but the chef being in charge of us, everyday’s situation became a new and often puzzling situation, once the city with the help of the military stepped in to take charge of the feeding essential workers operation.
The decision to move Niki and her team of volunteers to the Nova Hotel kitchen at day 3, was made with no consultation or obvious knowledge and consideration among the decision makers of how much physical and mental work is required to move your entire food production elsewhere.
A new chef joined us, whose particular job it became to administer the safety and employment protocols that the city of Yellowknife now required to facilitate commitment and a more orderly schedule as we learned. The plan now was to get all of us volunteers on payroll, most likely for liability reasons. Those of us who wanted to remain volunteers were asked to sign on to a different volunteer list. Those who had taken on logistical responsibilities because they had a knack for it were advised about the new chain of command and put in their place for overstepping boundaries. Those who insisted that our team was not a product of bureaucracy but community where everyone should be treated equal and with respect got themselves wound up in arguments. And information to keep everyone in the know of where we’re at in the current situation of emergency response and where we’re steering appeared to be inconsistent and terribly vague.
Later on that week we learned that this catering contract was supposed to be handed to one of the big northern catering companies that normally serves some of the mines, hence all the protocols and language directed at untrained staff, that’s us, who until then had been feeding hundreds of people because they needed to be fed, we were now being taught how to handle a knife in the kitchen.
We tried to make sense of all of it piecing together any bits of information we got, which of course, leads to no clear or helpful conclusions.
Even Niki received no consultation, was not asked directly about how she was planning to run the kitchen and what she needed to do it. The city involved itself but none of us in the process of deciding what works best.
And I guess that this is where I am trying to go with this little report; Within the context of a very serious forest fire threat and the subsequent evacuation, an intense and stressful situation for all people involved I’ve encountered two very different experiences of leadership and community, and their inherant dynamics. I’m not discounting one or the other, we need both. But I have notions of what made one dynamic function so well and the other being disappointing. One was built on necessity, yes, but even more so on a sense of working together on equal terms, on accountability and integrity, obviously with a person in charge and others assuming roles according to their individual strengths, and on respect and a common goal.
The other one was also responding to this same out of the ordinary situation, yet being subjected to a system that, with the best of people doing the best of their jobs, still somehow seemed to serve itself more than the public it is supposed to serve best. I’m talking about the sentiment of self preservation that trickles through the decision making, the inbuilt structural power dynamics and vague yet purposeful language underlying all communication because it represents what the governing body is built on, even or maybe more so when dealing with an emergency. Of course we can’t and shouldn’t assume to know the scope and contexts of other people’s work better than they do. And the harsh beauty of these extraordinary situations we all get subjected to is that it brings out the best and the worst in everyone, just as the parameters dictate.
But ultimately we can trace our paths back to the baselines. And my preferred language is that of transparency and communication. Our common goal should be community. And the key to community is heart and spirit all of which need to be valued and nourished in order to thrive. I don’t think that is specific to an emergency situation, just a little more pronounced.
My work with Niki’s team ended on Tuesday, Aug 29th, when it was decided by the city that we wouldn’t be doing any more catering at the Nova Hotel kitchen anymore. Being informed about the hotel’s staff taking back their kitchen and continue the catering, there was no point of argument. But as it turned out, there was no hotel kitchen staff back in Yellowknife. So instead Calgary’s Salvation Army moved in to feed the remaining 150 or so guys after the structural firefighters from Alberta had been deployed. Go figure!
There is no question that all of us took a lot with us from this experience. What I’ve gained from working in the kitchen, aside from a sense of scope that makes home cooking and canning of my own produce look like a piece of cake, are lessons in resourcefulness and strength. What carried the whole operation and its flow and productivity was a very intentional approach to an honest and unassuming community driven effort. It was a temporary response, but a very reliable one, revealing a source of all the assets that are already here, in this place, all the time. It’s just the spirit we have to keep nourishing, togetherness we have to keep practising, and humility we all have to be reminded of in order to be able to learn, the city, the government, and the rest of us.