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Cellphone service is something many Canadians take for granted. But some Indigenous and remote communities, like Bloodvein First Nation in Manitoba, are forced to flee wildfires without this lifeline. Leaving home in a rush with no sense of when you can return, unable to call or text loved ones to plan your escape or check on them in the event of a sudden emergency is a reality for so many Indigenous communities, said NDP MP Niki Ashton — but it doesn’t have to be.
The NDP is calling on the federal government to invest in emergency preparedness for Indigenous communities in the midst of a devastating wildfire season. This is a continuation of the federal NDP’s efforts to shine a spotlight on the climate crisis and emergency preparedness last week.
On July 27, Nunavut MP Lori Idlout and Manitoba MP Ashton sent a letter to Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu pointing out the federal government’s chronic underfunding of emergency preparedness services in First Nations communities. A 2022 report by the auditor general found Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support First Nations communities needed to manage emergencies like increasingly frequent and intense wildfires and floods.
“There's been so many First Nations communities that have been neglected for so long,” Idlout told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. “It's the First Nations, Métis, Inuit communities that know their areas, and they are the ones that know what the solutions are, and even when they provide their solutions, they're not being heard.”
This wildfire season has been the worst in Canada’s history: more than 12.5 million hectares of land have burned. On the date the letter was sent, a little more than 1,000 fires were burning across the country, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre website. Of those, 619 were classified as out of control. The increasing frequency and severity of wildfires can be attributed in part to climate change driven by human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.
“While Conservatives continue to deny the realities of climate change, we have seen unprecedented wildfires and flooding in recent months,” Hajdu said in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer. “These emergencies have taken a horrific toll on First Nations communities that have been disproportionately impacted.”
Emergency management must be led by and for First Nations consistent with principles of self-determination, the statement reads. It also pointed out that after the auditor general released their report, the federal government reformed the Emergency Management Assistance Program to “be more flexible and respond to emergencies in a way that is best for individual communities.”
First Nations communities are 18 times more likely to be evacuated because of an emergency event compared to non-First Nations communities, according to the Assembly of First Nations’ emergency response sector, Idlout and Ashton’s letter pointed out.
“For instance, communities like Leaf Rapids, Cross Lake, Pukatawagan, Little Grand Rapids, Paungassi, and Bloodvein were evacuated in the last couple of years due to wildfires,” the letter reads.
NDP MPs @LoriIdlout and @nikiashton are pushing the federal government to invest in emergency prevention and preparedness for Indigenous communities, like cell service, all-weather roads, climate-resilient infrastructure and training. #cdnpoli
Fires are not the only threat Canadians are facing this summer. Nova Scotia experienced historic rainfall and catastrophic flooding last weekend, causing the province to declare a state of emergency that was lifted on July 26. Communities like the Kashechewan First Nation regularly face serious flooding, and this year, the Cree community in northern Ontario had to evacuate more than 450 people when annual floods hit in April.
“The reality is that these evacuations can be very traumatic for communities that are already on the margins,” Ashton told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. She pointed to the northern Manitoba community Cross Lake, which evacuated more than 7,000 people in May when a wildfire threatened the community.
“It was a very, very difficult operation for the community,” said Ashton, who represents northern Manitoba. “And many have said that … while the community was safe from wildfires, that the interaction was deeply traumatic.”
She recounted the story of one family with an elderly grandmother who was “already ill and frail” who passed away a couple days after being evacuated.
When people from the town of Leaf Rapids, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, were evacuated, the province provided cheques of varying amounts so they could purchase necessities. Ashton noted that Leaf Rapids is not a First Nation but said the town has a large Indigenous population.
However, Ashton said, “because many of them didn't have … access to identification, they weren't able to cash them in and many of these families live in and around the poverty line.
“What we're doing is not working for these communities, and what many are calling for is resources to be able to keep their community safe and resilient in the face of climate change.”
The letter to Hajdu says the government isn’t doing enough to fund projects that prevent or lessen the impacts of extreme weather events. “Communities need flood protection, increased cellphone coverage, funding and training of local wildfire firefighting crews and investment in infrastructure, including all-weather roads,” the two NDP MPs write.
For example, Idlout says the community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is a “regional hub” for many communities. However, some airlines won’t fly to its airport because the runway is not paved.
“I think as an emergency preparedness measure, that airport in Cambridge Bay needs to be paved so that during search and rescues or other emergencies, Cambridge Bay can serve the other communities, including its own residents,” said Idlout.
The letter said the federal government turned down Bloodvein First Nation's request for a fire truck.
“The climate emergency is upon us, and we know that Indigenous communities are facing it with the least amount of resources and are being dealt the greatest impacts,” said Ashton.
Better emergency response is important, “but by far the most important piece needs to be prevention,” said Ashton, noting that prevention — like investments in infrastructure and programs — falls under the purview of Indigenous Services Canada.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer