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As Canada braces for a raging summer, Indigenous communities remain displaced
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As Canada braces for a raging summer, Indigenous communities remain displaced

When Robert Laboucan pictured his son taking his first steps he imagined it would be at home, maybe even in front of a camera in their living room. Instead, the one-year-old first walked in the hallway of the Flamingo Inn in High Level, the tiny Alberta town where the family have been living for more than a year after escaping the massive wildfires that devastated the Indigenous-owned Fox Lake Reserve.

“It was really hard,” said Laboucan, a member of the Little Red River Cree Nation.

Laboucan, his partner Jennifer, and their five children, aged one-16, are among dozens of fire evacuees still living at the hotel. While they will not get an exact replacement of the home they lost, Laboucan has been told that a new home will be ready for the family by July – approximately 14 months after the 2023 Paskwa fire tore through the Little Red River Cree Nation.

Last year saw Canada’s worst wildfire season ever: 6,132 blazes erupted across the country, destroying 16.5m hectares of land, according to Statistics Canada. A thousand of the fires broke out in Alberta.

And a year later, as Canada braces for another hot summer, many Indigenous communities in the northern parts of the western provinces are still displaced.

“It’s a pretty substantial challenge, actually, for our establishment,” said Flamingo Inn manager Tyceer Abou Moustafa. “At the beginning our suppliers didn’t have enough stock on hand to even maintain feeding the people. So that was a pretty hard challenge of finding new suppliers and new people who could keep up with what we needed.”

Doig River Reserve in Rose Prairie, British Columbia.View image in fullscreen

Research has shown that Indigenous land in Canada is disproportionately affected by wildfires. A 2019 study from the Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction found that 80% of Indigenous communities are located in fire-prone regions. Matters are further complicated by the isolated nature of many communities which are often outside the jurisdiction of local firefighters and lack infrastructure such as all-weather roads.

A tight-knit community of just over 2,000 people, Fox Lake sits in the forest along the south side of Peace River. After the spring thaw, access is only possible by water.

On 2 May, the blooming Paskwa wildfire drew closer and the population scrambled to evacuate. Residents were told they had just 30 minutes before the flames reached the ferry landing and were urged not to take anything except their families and essentials.

Jennifer, who was pregnant at the time, was already in High Level to be close to emergency care, so Laboucan evacuated with his four children alone.

“There were like 30 or 40 vehicles ahead of us,” said Laboucan. “We had to leave our van behind, and I had to bring my kids down to the boat and then go back and grab our luggage and whatever we could grab.”

When he returned to the harbor, Laboucan found there was not enough room for him and his family on the barge – but they managed to escape on a motorboat brought in by fellow town members.

It was only later that they found out that their basement home was among the dozens which had been destroyed.

Burnt land from the Doig River Fire in May 2024View image in fullscreen

“There’s like 90 houses. I think we’re like 78 or 84 on the list,” he said. “When I heard about this new fire season, I hoped that nobody else would have to go through the experience that me and my family had.”

Since 1 January, 423 wildfires have already burned in Alberta, and 39 of them were in the Peace River Region which is composed of the town of Peace River, Alberta, Mackenzie county (which includes Fox Lake) and several towns in British Columbia. For many in this region, wildfire evacuation has become a part of life, with the International Journal of Wildland Fire finding that 42% of evacuations are of Indigenous communities, despite making up only 5% of the population.

Climate crisis is only making the situation worse. A study conducted by a coalition of scientists from Canada, the UK and Netherlands found drilling for fossil fuels lead to a 20% increase in fire-prone weather, with fires 20% more likely to be intense.

Haana Edenshaw, a 20-year-old Indigenous activist who is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit suing Canada for its role in global heating, said that for Indigenous nations every aspect of life is intertwined with nature – and that puts them on the front line of the climate crisis.

“Our way of life continues to be threatened by Canada’s colonial government, they’ve removed so much of our cultural security and our land security which is interconnected,” she said.

Indigenous cultures have traditionally seen wildfires as a form of natural rejuvenation, but elders say that the reality of climate crisis has become impossible to ignore – and many communities are organizing to make sure they are ready.

“In the last few years I’ve seen more fire than ever,” said 75-year-old Gerry Attachie, an elder within the Doig River First Nation in British Columbia.

Doig River First Nation councillors Brittany Robertson and Justin Davis with members of the Doig River governing team and elder Gerry Attachie at the groundbreaking of Doig River Urban ReserveView image in fullscreen

Attachie recalled a time when fires were extinguished due to rain, snow or cool weather changes. He lived through the 1950 Chinchaga Fire, the largest single forest fire in Canada, which destroyed some 4,200,000 acres in northern Alberta and British Columbia but was eventually dissipated by cooler weather.

“We met fire, and we watched and worked carefully to make sure it was out,” Attachie said, recalling the fires of his childhood.

This year Doig River First Nation evacuated on 13 May after a fire burned 250 hectares (617.76 acres) of the reserve. The fire did not reach any buildings, and no one was harmed – partly because the community had successfully responded to the lessons learned last year, said councillor Brittany Robertson.

“Last year it was stressful [but] this year we are more prepared,” said Robertson. “I feel like our emergency operations team did more training. They were more prepared and knew what to do. We also have incredible industry partners who jumped in and helped where they were needed.”

During last year’s disastrous Donnie Creek Fire – the largest in Alberta’s history – Doig River surveyed community members to work out how to improve their evacuation procedures. This year they offered more support and more evacuation routes, keeping track of their members at all times.

“Everybody monitors the Doig River First Nation Facebook page,” said fellow councillor Justin Davis. “With this fire the evacuation went way smoother because we had better communication with the members … we kept better track of where people were evacuating.”

One for many First Nation communities is that they live outside of municipalities monitored by municipal firefighters. While Doig River First Nation did get some support from the provincial BC fire team and contract firefighters from the AEMA First Nations department, they do not have the security of municipal firefighters, and are generally responsible for protecting their reserve.

Little Red River Cree Nation which includes Fox Lake has their own firefighting unit, not supported by municipal funds, and sometimes gets assistance from the provincial unit Alberta Wildfire.

The Government of Canada has acknowledged that Indigenous knowledge is a key element in responding to climate crisis, and has created a program through Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to promote Indigenous climate leadership and low-emissions energy.

Doig River Nation has worked with community partners to establish the 45,000 hectare K’ih Tsaa? dze Tribal Park in order to restore natural ecosystems. Little Red River Cree Nation, meanwhile has established a culture reconciliation environment and energy department.

Two weeks after the evacuation alert for Doig River First Nation ended on 20 May, the community gathered in Fort St John to break ground on a new urban reserve.

By that time every fire was under control, but even when fire burns Robertson remains confident in her community.

“Our community is very unique, tight-knit … It’s like one big family,” Robertson said. “We’ll be there in a second to make sure we are supported.”

Source: theguardian.com