Over the past year, climate stories affecting Indigenous communities in Canada carried an almost apocalyptic horror.

They ranged from historic wildfires that torched 18.5 million hectares across the country, to the frenzied evacuations sparked by those wildfires, to instances of environmental racism that retold Canada’s colonial story of poisoning First Nations — often to the benefit of industry.

Take the look at Kearl Lake, where the Alberta Energy Regulator waited months before informing Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation that the waters and animals were poisoned. Then there were the benzene leaks in Aamjiwnaang that forced some people to seek hospital treatment and resulted in the plant announcing it would close by 2026. And how about Grassy Narrows, a nation dealing with legacy mercury poisoning in water where they fish?

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu sat down with Canada’s National Observer to discuss these issues.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Canada’s National Observer: Last year was a historic year for wildfires. It was also a historic year for First Nations with more than 90 wildfire evacuations. What lessons were learned?

Patty Hajdu: I was really honoured to be asked in some really critical situations by First Nations leaders to step in and help with a variety of different things that people were struggling with. Whether it was working with other federal agencies to get permission, for example, to create fire breaks in federal parks — which we were able to do — [or] whether it was working with First Nations that were self-governing in the Northwest Territories, such as K’atl’odeeche, who didn't feel at all supported by the territory.

I think another important change that we have made is that we ended the requirement for FN to submit receipts for every expense incurred during an evacuation. So if a person is coordinating an emergency and they have to evacuate the community, maybe that community doesn't have the cash or capacity to be able to pay for the transportation, the rooms and all of the extra things that people will forget. That inevitably puts a financial strain on First Nations who were often waiting for months to get reimbursed.

And so, not only did we reimburse communities that were struggling, but we also pivoted to an advanced payment system. So if a First Nation is preparing for a wildfire season and knows that cash is tight — or they're going to have some fiscal challenges with the expenses of a potential evacuation, renting equipment, supporting volunteer teams and all of the different things, they now have access to cash. From what I've understood from Fire Management Professionals, that takes a huge level of worry off their shoulders.

You'll hear the Conservatives mock that term, environmental racism, because reconciliation is something they've never cared about. #CanPoli #reconciliation

CNO: Each First Nation in Alberta was funded for emergency management coordinators. However, both British Columbia and Northwest Territories face high levels of threat from wildfire. Why are interior B.C. and N.W.T nations still without coordinators?

PH: This is a pilot for full-time emergency management coordinator teams in Alberta and Manitoba. This is really important.

I will be assessing how it goes in Alberta this year for a couple of reasons: one, to give communities that planning capacity, because it's hard to do something off the corner of your desk or in a part-time capacity; and,two, a lot of emergency management responses actually rely on a relationship with the province or territory. There's a federal component for sure, but what we're really good at is cash. And we have some additional capacity and support through things such as the rangers and the military in the case of extreme disasters, but the majority of the heavy lifting is done by provinces and territories.

And sometimes coordination breaks down between the First Nation and the province, like we saw in the Northwest Territories. Those coordinators help to pull everybody closer together.

In B.C., they also have the First Nations Emergency Management Organization, which is funded by the federal government to provide that overall interface between the province of B.C. and the First Nations out there and to support First Nations communities in preparedness and response.

We're really trying to pivot to self determination, building capacity, building tighter relationships with provinces and territories — and ultimately, increasing the confidence and the tools that First Nations need in order to be ready for whatever comes at them.

CNO: What do you think the auditor general will say when she reviews this file again? Will she be as critical as previous years?

PH: I’ll never assume how the Auditor General will react, but what I will say is that we’re in a much better place after last year’s wildfire season.

CNO: Environmental racism was a common theme this past year, including the Kearl Lake leak in northern Alberta, the ongoing pollution in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, the Grassy Narrows mercury poisoning and court challenge and countless other incidents that didn’t make headlines. Can you reflect on another year marked by environmental racism in Canada?

PH: I'm not allowed to speak about issues that are in court. But I will say that we've been committed to Grassy Narrows for a long-term treatment centre. And it's been a fact we were really pleased with Budget 2024, for having increased dollars to support building it. I spoke with Chief Turtle and he is quite happy about that work.

You use the word “environmental racism” and I would agree with that. There’s been a wanton poisoning of First Nations lands, water and air since contact in areas that are far, far away from the view of everyday Canadians. And there are obviously non-Indigenous people that are affected by this too. I think it speaks to a lack of rigor to protect people's health, but in particular First Nations’ health.

These incidents cause fear in the communities. Not only is their water contaminated, but they might be eating animals and they may be using the land in ways that expose them to potential toxic chemicals that they are unaware of in their food sources and land. That's got to stop. That's the point behind the water legislation: we have to use legal tools to protect people's right to clean water and right to know what's in their water systems.

And of course, the benzene pollution is another egregious example of a complete abuse of a regulatory system that has a predominant effect on Indigenous peoples.

You'll hear the Conservatives mock that term, environmental racism, because reconciliation is something they've never cared about. I look at the Leader of the Opposition, who was reprimanded by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper after his comments about Indigenous people. It gives you a sense of the mindset of that party.

We need Members of Parliament to speak out about the kinds of infractions that are happening all too frequently to First Nations people.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative