An image of the Pikangikum Phoenix adorns a doorway of a sprawling school in this Far North community. It is one of the school’s mascots: The bird who beats death by rising from its own ashes. It speaks to the aspirations of this isolated Ojibwa community, which has been battling high rates of suicide, addictions and unemployment.
Yet today, the fly-in community’s ambitions have been put on pause, with a 50,000-hectare wildfire smouldering in the surrounding forest. Five days earlier, Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap gave her community an order to evacuate – her second such decree in a little more than a month.
She hasn’t had a chance to send off her own family yet. Her five-year-old son, Talon, is plopped in a chair in front of a video of Baby Shark, as she and her advisers work the phones, talk to Indigenous groups and government officials, and review maps of Red Lake Fire 39, one of more than a dozen forest fires roaring through Northwestern Ontario on this day.
The evacuation has hit a hitch. While half of Pikangikum’s roughly 4,000 residents are already gone, others must now wait until more communities volunteer to take them in. Registering to evacuate in the school’s foyer, some mothers carry babies in traditional tiginaagan cradleboards, as their toddlers sleep on luggage. Many of them just don’t know where they’ll end up.
“There’s a lack of host communities in Ontario,” Ms. Sainnawap laments from a makeshift emergency centre on the second floor of the newly built Eenchokay Birchstick School, which replaced one that burned down more than a decade ago. “So now we’re planning to look outside the province, as far away as Saskatchewan. Can you imagine?”
The threat of forest fire is a constant for Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario, but the response to the latest one has vexed First Nation leaders. The reluctance of some Ontario municipalities to shelter Pikangikum’s residents prompted the provincial government to turn to Saskatchewan for help. The western province has agreed to house up to half of Pikangikum’s fire refugees.
“There’s no good reason why we aren’t looking after our own here in Ontario. We are requesting that municipalities open their doors,” said Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Chiefs of Ontario.
Dozens of First Nations communities exist in Ontario’s north. When forest fires threaten them, it’s the reserve’s chief who makes the evacuation call.
Federal responsibilities then kick in. The federal government looks after transportation costs, including those of military aircraft such as the huge Hercules turboprops sent to Pikangikum this week. Provincial officials, meanwhile, are in charge of fighting the fires, but also try to manage the logistics of who goes where. This includes asking municipalities to become “host communities.” Jurisdictions that incur costs of food and hotel rooms up front are supposed to be paid back by the federal government later.
Thunder Bay, 500 kilometres southeast of Pikangikum by plane, has taken in about 1,000 people from the First Nation community. Those evacuees likely represent the largest single evacuation from a reserve Thunder Bay has absorbed to date.
Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro says Ottawa and Queen’s Park need to figure out ways to spur more municipalities to act more urgently next time.
“We know this is going to happen next year and the year after that,” he said. “We need a process in place … we [in Thunder Bay] can’t house 2,000, 4,000, 6,000 people.”
Provinces have standard agreements for emergency management with each other. But ambiguities can surround such relationships with municipalities – especially the cities with little or no experience helping First Nations communities.
“Fortunately, Saskatchewan was able to quickly make a large number of spots available,” said Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor-General. He also extended thanks to several Northern Ontario communities that routinely help out Indigenous evacuees.
On Friday, nearly a week after the emergency was declared in Pikangikum, Mr. Ross said some larger Ontario centres were still on the cusp of figuring out how to help. “Toronto, the Nav Centre in Cornwall and Peel Region will also be ready to accept evacuees in the coming days,” he said.
Because Thunder Bay and Saskatchewan agreed to accept about three-quarters of Pikangikum’s residents, few people appear to have been left in the lurch. Some residents are reluctant to leave because the immediate fire threat had diminished.
The first Canadian Forces Hercules of evacuees arrived Thursday morning in Saskatchewan. Buses took Pikangikum residents to the University of Regina’s dorm rooms, where Red Cross workers and Ojibway translators waited.
At Thunder Bay’s Valhalla Inn, many Pikangikum residents expressed gratitude for their meal vouchers and hotel rooms – and access to a pool. But they were also weary. They had only recently returned home after a previous forest-fire evacuation when they were forced to leave again.
“Last time, I stayed in an arena,” said David Peters, 62. The Pikangikum resident said he ended up spending eight days in Kapuskasing and Hearst a little more than a month ago, when he was fleeing from the other forest fire that threatened his community.
Back in Pikangikum, Ms. Sainnawap laments that the evacuation has interrupted many of her plans for the community. Elected in February, she was hoping to get the community’s new rock crusher going this summer, to make aggregate mix, so foundations could be poured for new homes.
“I want to improve the roads. I want to get a fully functional fire prevention program in the community,” she says.
She explained how she had moved away, but returned after her sister died in a fire that killed nine people in 2016. Now, she is trying to safeguard her community from a familiar adversary hovering on its outskirts. “This summer fire, when it rains it burrows," she says. "A few days of sun and it can flare up again.”
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