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‘Unbearable’ hurt as Fort McPherson, N.W.T., sees 5 deaths in 1 week

November 14, 2023

‘All of the deaths we’ve experienced have touched every person in Fort McPherson,’ says chief

CBC Indigenous: Prayer circles were held across the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and northern B.C. over the weekend to mourn a series of recent deaths in the hamlet of Fort McPherson, N.W.T. 

Three young women, a young man and an elder in the community all died within days of one another. Several left behind young children.  The losses have deeply affected the small, tight-knit Gwich’in community, which has already been experiencing a difficult year.

Bella Martin lives in Fort McPherson and is a family member of one of the people who died in recent days.  “The community has been hit hard,” she said. “I want to say my condolences to the families of the ones we lost and just continued prayers for Teetl’it Zheh.”

“It’s something I’ve never experienced before,” said Tetł’it Gwich’in Band Council Chief Elizabeth Wright. “All of the deaths we’ve experienced have touched every person in Fort McPherson. The hurt that we’re going through is unbearable.”

Wright describes those who died as very “visible members of our community… it’s just a huge, tragic loss.”  Wright declined to comment on the causes of death. “I will not speak on that,” she said. “That’s a really private matter and that is up to the families to talk about that. And I can tell you right now that we’re not prepared to talk about it.”

The losses have reverberated across the Mackenzie Delta and beyond. Wright said she’s been inundated with offers of help and support for the community in its grief. 

Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę ekw’ahtı̨dé (chief) Danny Gaudet has arranged for 13 elders to fly up to provide support, and some young men from Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., will be heading to Fort McPherson help dig graves for the deceased.  Old Crow, Yukon, sent over a charter plane packed with meat and other goods.

The hamlet’s population is about 750. This week, it’s full of returning members and supporters.  “It’s just meant so much to us, that presence here in the community,” said Wright. “On behalf of my community, I really want to say thank you to everyone.”

Still, many more have been unable to make the trip.  “We have so many people who want to be here but they can’t be here,” said Wright.

Fort McPherson lies on the Dempster Highway, but relies on seasonal ferries on either side of the community. People in the hamlet, and beyond, are awaiting freeze-up before the Dempster re-opens to winter traffic.  “We only have one airline coming into our community and it’s full either going in or coming out, so people really can’t get to our community unless they come in with a charter,” Wright said. 

Showing support from afar

Those who were unable to support in person showed up in spirit over the weekend.  Across two territories and at least one province, gatherings were held with singing, prayers and drumming to honour those who died and their families.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Esther Dobbs was born in Fort McPherson but currently calls Whitehorse home. At a prayer circle outside the Whitehorse library, she thanked a circle of people who gathered to hold hands and sing for Fort McPherson.  “We’d like to say thank you to all our supporters,” she said. “We have lots of people in the Yukon also calling … thank you, you give us strength. We’d also like to say a prayer for your families too. Keep us in your prayers. Mahsi cho.”

Outpourings of grief and live recordings of various events were shared on social media. 

“My heart goes out to the parents of the young ladies, and to their children,” said Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Pauline Frost in a statement shared on Facebook.  “I am at a loss for words, grief is hard on all of us, particularly when you lose someone you love at such a young age.   “It’s time for us to speak up, work with our young people, they need us to be open and embrace them.”

Funerals for the deceased will be held in the Fort McPherson over the next week.


Caitrin Pilkington

Caitrin Pilkington is a reporter with CBC North in Whitehorse. She previously worked for Cabin Radio in Yellowknife. She can be reached at