N.W.T. cemeteries in 'crisis' because of climate change, say community representatives

Many communities in the Northwest Territories are worried about the impacts climate change is having on their cemeteries.

The issue was brought up by multiple community representatives at the NWT Association of Communities’s recent annual general meeting in Inuvik.

“Due to climate change and the melting of the permafrost, our cemetery in Dettah is currently at its end of life,” said Jason Snaggs, chief executive officer for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

“Most people are now preferring to be buried in the Yellowknife cemetery.” 

Dettah’s current cemetery, Snaggs said, is facing issues with both slumping and overcrowding.

Flooding at the cemetery in Behchoko in 2018. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

He said they hope to work with researchers from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik, to identify “the right permafrost” that they can build a new cemetery on. 

“As we move forward in the search of a new cemetery we are working with MACA [the N.W.T.’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs] to see how we can alleviate a crisis, which exists today,” Snaggs said. 

He is hopeful using geographic information system data will help.

Most people are now preferring to be buried in the Yellowknife cemetery. ​​– Jason Snaggs, CEO, Yellowknives Dene First Nation

“We don’t want to face this issue in the next five to 10 years or 20 years. We want to have a cemetery that can last another 40 years.”

At the meeting, representatives from Tuktoyaktuk, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic also said they’re facing issues with their cemeteries due to climate change.

Competing with Mother Nature

The Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk is already facing worries about houses possibly falling into the ocean because of the eroding shoreline at “the Point,” the most northern area in the hamlet.

Erwin Elias, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, said the community is in a state of emergency because of the rapid coastal erosion. Its cemetery is located about 24 metres from the beach.

Erwin Elias, mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., says his community is in a state of emergency because of the rapidly eroding shoreline. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

“Obviously that’s one thing we want to make sure that we never lose to the ocean,” Elias said.

“We all understand that we can’t compete with Mother Nature, but we want to preserve it as long as we can.”

Elias said a feasibility study has been completed on protecting the shoreline, but now the hamlet will have to complete “detailed shoreline engineering” before it can write a proposal for federal funding.

Tuktoyaktuk will be opening a new cemetery further inland this year, Elias said. He said they won’t be closing the current cemetery but noted they are “running into a situation” in which they don’t have room for some families.

Elias said he’s not surprised other communities are facing the same problem.

2 communities received federal support

“Obviously, climate change is a huge impact on everybody, and more recently in the last 10 years where it’s really recently been starting to show,” he said.

A representative from the NWT Association of Communities said they’re aware of at least two communities that have received federal climate change adaptation funding to address threats to cemeteries.

Bechoko received $65,000 in 2018-19 to investigate flooding of its cemetery and develop remediation options. Fort McPherson’s Rat River Development Corp. received $4,600 in 2017-18 to work on several initiatives, including work on its cemetery, which is located near the escarpment edge.

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