Chief says First Nations left out of Fort McMurray fire response

The Fort McMurray wildfire became one of Canada’s worst natural disasters

It was May 8, 2016, and the Fort McMurray wildfire was in full blaze.

Municipal and provincial leaders had gathered to discuss a response when Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation walked in wanting to know how their plans would affect Indigenous communities.

“All these heads started looking at each other and they had no answers for me,” he recalls. “It was clearly evident they had no plans for emergency procedures for First Nations in the surrounding area.”

That’s also the main conclusion of a lengthy report by 11 Indigenous communities in and around Fort McMurray. It was funded by the Red Cross and is the result of two years of surveys, meetings and focus groups.

“You had this breakdown in understanding,” said Tim Clark, the consultant who wrote the report.

The Fort McMurray wildfire became one of Canada’s worst natural disasters.

More than 88,000 residents fled their homes and more than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed. The estimated cost was pegged at about $10 billion and nearly 6,000 square kilometres in northern Alberta were scorched.

There were no deaths directly caused by the fire, but the report suggests that wasn’t because things went smoothly.

Nobody knew who was in charge, it says. Between municipalities, the province and Ottawa, responsibility for Indigenous communities was up in the air.

There were few relationships and less trust between government and First Nations groups, says the report. Indigenous leaders weren’t included in the Regional Emergency Operations Centre.

READ MORE: Mental issues from Fort McMurray fire linger but human contact helps: study

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire forces man to lose weight

“You had Fort McMurray First Nation, just east of Fort McMurray, and they didn’t even know there was an emergency operations centre,” Clark said. “(The municipality) did not reach out to First Nations because it assumed they were being dealt with by the federal government.”

Most residents from the nearby hamlet of Janvier left for safety in Lac La Biche, 175 kilometres away. But when a few Janvier kids acted up, everyone, including elders, was rousted and moved again — some back to Janvier, which was still under threat.

Re-entry after the fire was similarly tone-deaf, the report says.

Registration centres were held in schools, institutions many Indigenous people are reluctant to enter.

“The moment you opened up the Friendship Centre re-entry centre, it was immediately filled with people,” said Clark. ”There were a lot of people who weren’t going to those (schools).”

There was also initial doubt about whether residents would be allowed to rebuild in the Waterways neighbourhood — one of the oldest parts of Fort McMurray and settled by Indigenous people generations ago.

“The municipality understood it in financial terms,” Clark said. “The Indigenous people understood it in more of a cultural, historical perspective.”

Governments also failed to consider the circumstances of Indigenous communities, he said. Many houses damaged in the fire started off in bad shape. Fewer Indigenous homeowners were insured.

About one-quarter of Indigenous people in the survey lost their homes — a far higher percentage than in Fort McMurray as a whole. About one-third of those who lost homes had no insurance.

It wasn’t until March 2017 — months into the recovery effort — that Indigenous representatives joined a recovery task force. Clark also found First Nations and the provincial agency managing federal relief funds worked poorly together. Metis communities weren’t eligible at all.

Clark writes that the Willow Lake Métis spent more than $100,000 supporting members during the wildfire. The Fort McMurray Métis spent their reserves to the point where they could not get a bank loan.

The survey found that 70 per cent of respondents would prefer disaster management services from Indigenous groups if there were a similar disaster.

Alberta Municipal Affairs spokeswoman Lauren Arscott said the province is examining the report.

“(Ministers) will closely review the recommendations offered by this report to understand how we can work with First Nations and Metis communities in Alberta to improve our disaster response system for Indigenous people,” she said. ”We will encourage both our municipal and federal counterparts to do the same.”

There will be a next time, said Clark.

“There are still a lot of areas in northeast Alberta that are at high risk for disaster events.

“We can’t just say we had a big wildfire so it won’t happen again. We need to start repairing these relationships now.”

Adams said it can’t happen soon enough.

“What happens now? What’s the plan for us? If the (municipality) doesn’t have a plan for us, who does? Aren’t we all supposed to be working together?”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health reports three additional COVID-19 cases in region

The number of cases in the region since the beginning of the pandemic are now at 492

UPDATE: Fire above Sparwood no threat to community

Mayor David Wilks reported it may be due to an exposed coal seam

Conservative opposition critic tours through Kootenay riding on listening tour

Pierre Poilievre, the Tory finance critic, gathering local feedback on pandemic supports, recovery issues

EKC makes $5,000 donation to Elk Valley ultrasound campaign

The EKC challenged other businesses to help the campaign hit its $300,000 target

City of Fernie to extend pilot snow removal program

Councillors voted unanimously on Sep. 17 to extend the program due to a lack of data points and disruption due to the pandemic

3 new deaths due to COVID-19 in B.C., 139 new cases

B.C. confirms 40 ‘historic cases,’ as well

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Emaciated grizzly found dead on central B.C. coast as low salmon count sparks concern

Grizzly was found on Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw territory in Smith Inlet, 60K north of Port Hardy

VIDEO: B.C. to launch mouth-rinse COVID-19 test for kids

Test involves swishing and gargling saline in mouth and no deep-nasal swab

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Young Canadians have curtailed vaping during pandemic, survey finds

The survey funded by Heart & Stroke also found the decrease in vaping frequency is most notable in British Columbia and Ontario

B.C. teachers file Labour Relations Board application over COVID-19 classroom concerns

The application comes as B.C.’s second week of the new school year comes to a close

CHARTS: Beyond Metro Vancouver, COVID-19 cases in B.C. haven’t increased much recently

COVID-19 case counts outside of Metro Vancouver have been level since July

70-year-old punched in the head in dispute over disability parking space in Nanaimo

Senior’s turban knocked off in incident at mall parking lot

Most Read