Momentum is continuing to build for the Gjoa Haven Search and Rescue Committee.

The number of regular volunteers has climbed to almost a dozen and $21,000 has been raised through bingos since March, allowing the group to purchase a new snowmobile in late September.

Amber Eleehetook was a catalyst in rebuilding the search and rescue team. She knew conditions had to improve when she moved back home from Cambridge Bay in March and her brother and brother-in-law were stranded out on the tundra in -60 C conditions shortly thereafter. The community was ill-equipped to rescue them.

Fortunately, they made it back without any serious injury.

“It was scary,” she said of the anxiety while awaiting their return.

Eleehetook said somebody told her that “’someone needs to step up and start something’, which I did.”

She circulated word on local radio and social media to generate renewed interest in the committee.

“I reached out and had a lot of good feedback, people wanted to join,” she said. “(We are) moving forward with more motivation to get the committee in a great standing as this is life or death — everyone matters — so for me, I joined SAR because I have the energy and motivation to help my community with whatever is needed.”

The group tries to meet at least once a month. The other regular committee members are Clayton Keknek, Paul Kayuqtuq, Marnie Ekelik, Martha Porter, Brandon Qirqqut, Susie Niaqunnuaq, Sharon Takkiruq, Gibson Porter and Jack Skillings.

“We all just work together with what knowledge that is needed … (and) make sure that everyone receives what is needed for each search,” said Eleehetook, now the committee’s co-ordinator.

The new snowmobile was important because the group only had two aging snow machines and a truck that requires significant mechanical work, she noted. Fundraising is ongoing for more equipment and supplies.

Other goals that the committee members have set include placing markers around King William Island to help travellers navigate safely and possibly using spray paint to mark arrows on boulders showing the direction to find the community.

Eleehetook also posts tips for residents on Facebook, for example, to be aware of poor weather conditions approaching and reminding them to inform family members of important details about any trips they’re taking on the land.

She’s been on call since she took over the co-ordinator’s role and there have been dozens of occasions when help was needed just within the past several months.

“It was a very busy spring and summer, a little busy this fall,” she said. “Always ready for the unexpected.”

Eleehetook is also part of the Kitikmeot SAR Project, which examines Nunavut’s community-based search and rescue system to identify strengths, challenges and approaches to improve responses.

A related roundtable held in Cambridge Bay in 2020 brought together more than 60 search and rescue members from the five Kitikmeot communities as well as academics and representatives of federal and territorial departments and agencies.

While most of the roundtable focused on community-level searches, there was also a mass rescue tabletop exercise centred on a cruise ship running aground in Kitikmeot waters, said Peter Kikkert, a professor of public policy and governance at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., who’s also part of the Kitikmeot SAR Project, along with Angulalik Pedersen, Calvin Pedersen and Whitney Lackenbauer.

Among the challenges identified during last year’s roundtable were an increasing SAR case load caused due to climate change; the loss of land safety knowledge; unpredictable and expanding outside activity, including marine traffic; training gaps; equipment shortages; volunteer burnout; lack of mental and physical health supports for responders; troublesome administrative requirements; social media issues; difficulty coordinating, co-operating and communicating across the community, territorial/provincial, and federal levels; and slow response times from southern-based SAR assets, according to Kikkert.

“Amber and Gjoa Haven SAR are aware of these challenges and are working to mitigate them,” Kikkert stated. “I have watched searches unfold on the Facebook page and it is incredible to see the community organizing and co-ordinating its efforts, guided by Amber and the SAR committee.”

Eleehetook has also done a “great job” of explaining Nunavut’s SAR policies to community members, such as when Nunavut Emergency Management can get involved in a search and when air support can be provided, he added.

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