When Mario Wassaykeesic decided to take a vacation from his job in London, Ont., last month, he planned to relax. He didn’t anticipate that he’d end up over 1,300 kilometres away, helping evacuees from his home community of Poplar Hill First Nation.
However, on a recent afternoon near the front of a hotel banquet room in Thunder Bay, Mr. Wassaykeesic, who normally works as a holistic wellness co-ordinator, sat in a chair with a microphone in his hand, announcing the afternoon’s scheduled activities in both English and Oji-Cree. Children, displaced by a recent wildfire near their community, ran around him, eager to play in the bouncy castles in the parking lot. Minutes later, he was asking a hotel staff member to deliver flour, lard and mixing bowls to a bannock-making session scheduled for that afternoon.
Poplar Hill, a fly-in community about 550 kilometres north of Thunder Bay with a population of 650, was evacuated last month as the wildfire closed in. Mr. Wassaykeesic is providing, as a volunteer, the type of community support First Nations say they need during emergencies and crises – support they say the provincial government should be providing.
As wildfires burn through hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in Northwestern Ontario, displacing thousands from five First Nations communities, Indigenous leaders have been calling on Ontario’s provincial government to lend resources to local relief efforts.
Last week, Premier Doug Ford assured northern communities that his government would provide assistance to those affected by wildfires. “We’ll put all the resources we have,” he said during a visit to the province’s wildfire command centre in Thunder Bay.
Local First Nations and the Ontario NDP have requested that the provincial government declare a state of emergency in the region. But Mr. Ford said that he would not, because doing so would mean “the province coming in, taking over everything,” whereas he believes in collaborating with First Nations and municipalities. He added that the province can provide assistance without an emergency declaration.
The Ontario government has committed firefighters and aircraft to the effort to fight the wildfires, supplied transportation for evacuees, and identified and co-ordinated host communities for evacuees. But leaders of local First Nations communities say more must be done to provide services to wildfire victims near where they live, without requiring them to travel south to urban centres such as Toronto.
The communities are asking for culturally relevant resources, such as translators and mental-health supports. They also say that they would like to retain the power to direct the wildfire response in their areas, because they know their own needs better than government officials in distant urban centres.
Matthew Hoppe, chief executive officer of the Independent First Nations Alliance, a northern tribal council, said the group has been working on its own emergency management system for the past two years. The system has allowed local First Nations to co-ordinate the evacuation of about 1,250 residents from Pikangikum, Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay, Timmins and Sudbury. However, despite this, there is still a hitch.
According to Mr. Hoppe, Northwestern Ontario is almost out of temporary places for wildfire evacuees to stay while they wait to return to their homes – a situation he feels would not be happening if the province took remote communities’ concerns into account.
A lack of both accommodations and proper support services has put a hold on evacuating about 1,300 residents from Pikangikum, he said.
Communities such as Poplar Hill have been sent to different host locations, some over a thousand kilometres from each other, separating some families and children. Host communities specify how many evacuees they are able to take, which means evacuees often get split up, despite attempts to keep families together.
Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, where many of the fires are burning, said reunifying separated families during the evacuations is causing more stress for evacuees. In one instance, a group of three siblings travelled 1,500 kilometres with one of their parents, from Cornwall to Thunder Bay, to get to the other parent.
“Those are the things people don’t understand, and I don’t think we can treat evacuees like that,” Mr. Mamakwa said.
According to Brent Ross, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor-General, although the provincial government co-ordinates evacuations it’s up to host communities, non-government organizations and any supporting partners to provide accommodations, meals, medical care and other necessities to evacuees. The federal government reimburses the host communities for their costs.
Hotels in Kenora, Ont., are packed with guests in the midst of a busy tourist season, but the community managed to take in 75 evacuees from Poplar Hill when the province asked, according to Kent Readman, the city’s fire chief. The evacuees were placed in a school gymnasium, where they were brought meals and had access to washroom facilities and laundry services, he said.
Following the evacuees’ arrival in Kenora, social media lit up with calls from local community members for volunteers and donations to get essential items and services, from socks to a pair of moccasins needed for the funeral and burial of a loved one.
Thunder Bay has learned best practices from its years of experience hosting First Nations evacuating from fires and floods, according to the city’s fire chief, Greg Hankkio, including that it’s preferable to keep evacuees housed in hotels, where laundry, food and other services are centrally accessible.
Mr. Hankkio added that being a host community for evacuees is a matter of assessing municipal resources and internal capacity, but that it also goes beyond that.
He said it’s key for municipalities to engage with organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross and local Indigenous groups to support the cultural and mental-health needs of evacuees.
Tribal councils and Thunder Bay’s aboriginal liaison unit, he said, help to make sure the city has community liaisons in place, drivers to transport people, security foot patrols and spots in schools for children.
“The community is a huge part of the process,” Mr. Hankkio said.
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