As wildfires across Canada continue on, Indigenous communities are on the front lines, with some communities evacuating several times over the past few years.
On Sunday afternoon, Atanda Norn was still in Grande Prairie, Alta., after fleeing there about a week earlier as wildfires threatened her home community of K’atl’odeeche First Nation, near Hay River, in the Northwest Territories.
The situation – an anxious drive, car troubles, uncertainty over when she might go home – was familiar. In May, Ms. Norn and her four children had piled into a car to leave K’atl’odeeche after a previous evacuation order for a different set of fires.
“This is our second go-round,” Ms. Norn said on Sunday, adding that she and her family also left the community in May, 2022, when it was hit by record flooding.
Ms. Norn’s experience highlights the impact that natural disasters such as wildfires can have on Indigenous communities in the form of repeated displacements, loss of infrastructure when buildings are damaged or destroyed, and difficulties in preparing for and recovering from emergencies.
A federal Auditor-General’s 2022 report on emergency management in First Nations communities found emergencies such as floods, wildfires and landslides disproportionately affect First Nations communities – because of their relative remoteness and socio-economic circumstances, and because many communities have been relocated from traditional lands to flood- and wildfire-prone areas.
Over the preceding 13 years, First Nations communities experienced more than 580 evacuations affecting over 130,000 people – and those numbers are expected to increase, said the report, which called on Ottawa to focus more on prevention.
The impact of the B.C. wildfire season is being felt by First Nations throughout the province.
On Saturday, the Tsilhqot’in Nation, with traditional territory in Interior B.C., announced it had opened a group lodging centre for up to 100 people escaping fires – including Tsilhqot’in Nation members and other Indigenous peoples from across the province – near Riske Creek, B.C., southwest of Williams Lake.
The temporary lodging site will include family-size tents and spaces for recreational vehicles, the Nation said in a statement, adding that the site is intended to bolster the region’s capacity to host evacuees during peak tourist season, when hotel room availability may be limited.
Tsilhqot’in Nation communities were hard hit in B.C.’s devastating 2017 wildfire season, when large fires tore through thousands of hectares on the Chilcotin Plateau, threatening communities including Williams Lake. After jurisdictional clashes that year over issues including evacuation orders, the Tsilhqot’in Nation struck a Collaborative Emergency Management Agreement with the provincial and federal governments meant to improve communication and decision-making in wildfire emergencies.
The full extent of damage from the fires that have been raging around Kelowna, B.C., has yet to be determined.
The Adams Lake Indian Band on Saturday issued an evacuation order for Adams Lake Indian Reserve I.R. 5, on the southeast shore of Little Shuswap Lake.
Larry Read, a spokesperson for Skwlax te Secwepemculecw – also known as Little Shuswap Lake, or Squilax, band – on Sunday said community leaders were assessing the damage to the community, which consists of five small reserves near Little Shuswap Lake, and were expected to provide an update Monday.
There were conflicting reports on social media about damage in Squilax, including posts that said the Quaaout Lodge, a hotel operated by the band, had been destroyed by wildfire. On Sunday, Mr. Read said the lodge had not burned down, but there had been structural damage to other buildings in the community.
For evacuees, the uncertainty around when they could go home – as well as questions over whether their homes had even survived – added to the pressure of a frightening, unsettled summer.
In a statement posted on social media Sunday, Hay River mayor Kandis Jameson said warm, dry weather and steady winds meant conditions remained dangerous and re-entry would be “weeks not days” away.
In Grande Prairie, Ms. Norn said she and her family had accommodation, were in touch with family and friends, and that she was working with the band council to help people line up housing and other assistance, including food for pets.
“I’ve been through a flood, a fire and now a fire again,” Ms. Norn said. “So I kind of know the whole shebang.”
The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2023