Canadian wildfires hit Indigenous communities hard, threatening their land and culture
EAST PRAIRIE METIS SETTLEMENT, Alberta (AP) — Carrol Johnston counted her blessings as she stood on the barren site where her home was destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire that forced her to flee her northern Alberta community two months ago.
Her family escaped unharmed, though her beloved cat, Missy, didn’t make it out before a “fireball” dropped on the house in early May. But peony bushes passed down from her late mother survived and the blackened May Day tree planted in memory of her longtime partner is sending up new shoots — hopeful signs as she prepares to start over in the East Prairie Métis Settlement, about 240 miles (385 kilometres) northwest of Edmonton.
“I just can’t leave,” said Johnston, 72, who shared a home with her son and daughter-in-law. “Why would I want to leave such beautiful memories?”
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The worst wildfire season in Canadian history is displacing Indigenous communities from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, blanketing them in thick smoke, destroying homes and forests and threatening important cultural activities like hunting, fishing and gathering native plants.
Thousands of fires have scorched more than 42,000 square miles (110,000 square kilometres) across the country so far. On Tuesday, almost 900 fires were burning— most of them out of control — according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre website.
Fires aren’t uncommon on Indigenous lands, but they’re now occurring over such a widespread area that many more people are experiencing them at the same time — and some for the first time — stoking fears of what a hotter, drier future will bring, especially to communities where traditions run deep.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Raymond Supernault, chairman of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, where he said more than 85 per cent of the 129-square-mile (334-square-kilometre) settlement burned in the first wildfire there in over 60 years. Fourteen houses and 60 other structures were destroyed by the intense, fast-moving fire that led to the evacuation of almost 300 people and decimated forested land.
“In blink of eye, we lost so much … it was devastating. I can’t stress that enough,” said Supernault, who said he hasn’t seen any elk or moose, both important food sources, since the fire.
“We don’t just jump in the car and go to the IGA,” for groceries, Supernault said. “We go to the bush.”
In Canada, five per cent of the population identifies as Indigenous — First Nation, Métis or Inuit — with an even smaller percentage living in predominantly Indigenous communities. Yet more than 42 per cent of wildfire evacuations have been from communities that are more than half Indigenous, said Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire specialist with Parks Canada.
As of last week, almost 23,000 people from 75 Indigenous settlements have had to evacuate this year, according to Indigenous Services Canada. More than 3,600 people from 15 First Nations reserves in five provinces were evacuated as of Thursday, the agency said.
It’s not uncommon for Indigenous communities to evacuate repeatedly, Christianson said. A recent analysis of the Canadian Wildland Fire Evacuation database found that 16 communities were evacuated five or more times from 1980–2021 — all but two of them First Nations reserves, said Christianson, who participated in the analysis by the Canadian Forest Service.