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Over the past few days, apocalyptic skies have darkened Tony Wawatie's traditional territory around Barriere Lake. Hundreds of wildfires are scorching Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, forcing most of the First Nation's roughly 800 members to evacuate, sometimes sending them hundreds of kilometres away.
On Tuesday, Wawatie was in Maniwaki, nearly 200 kilometres south of Barriere Lake, where he and other evacuees are anxiously "hoping and praying there's going to be heavy, heavy rain to soothe Mother Earth."
"When you leave your community, there's always these preoccupations like, ‘Gosh, are my belongings gonna be taken care of? Is it going to burn down?’" he said. "But those are material. You can't replace when somebody loses a life because of what's happening."
The community was evacuated Sunday due to heavy smoke, though about 30 people remained with provincial firefighters to fight the fires. Several members who live on traplines north of the hamlet were also evacuated, and the fate of their remote homes in the blazes was uncertain, Chief Casey Ratt said in a Monday interview with CBC.
Canada faces an unprecedented wildfire season this year as climate change, largely driven by humans burning fossil fuels, creates more days with hot, dry conditions. Seven fires were burning in the region Wednesday, one of which — Fire 403, north of the community — was listed as "out-of-control."
Beyond the immediate impact the fires, smoke and evacuations are having on the community, Wawatie said they will also likely impact its food supply. Many people rely on wild meat like moose and deer for food and cultural well-being, species whose habitats are already impacted by logging operations in the region.
Tensions were already high around the well-being of the region's animals. In 2019, Anishinaabe (Algonquin) land defenders erected blockades to prevent hunters from entering the region in an effort to revive dwindling moose numbers. The Quebec government eventually declared a two-year moratorium on the hunt, but members remain concerned about the animals.
A 2022 report by Anishinaabe (Algonquin) members and academic researchers pointed to sport hunting and habitat disruption from logging as major factors impacting the populations. Now, Wawatie said fires will need to be added to the list.
"Our animals are burning, our food is burning," he said.
Over the past few days, apocalyptic skies have darkened Tony Wawatie's traditional territory around Barriere Lake. Hundreds of wildfires are scorching Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region.
Eventually, rain and the flames tearing through the region will subside, but Wawatie said the fires should be a warning for governments to meaningfully deal with climate change, overharvesting and other environmental issues.
"Mother Earth is reacting to all this. It's a cry out for Mother Earth that she needs to be taken better care of," he said. "We all walk on this ground. We all breathe that air. We all need that water."