USask final report finds faults with Pelican Narrows 2017 wildfire evacuation

First Nation residents describe evacuation as 'like residential schools all over again'

A wildfire burns in northern Saskatchewan on Sept. 6, 2017. (Government of Saskatchewan/Submitted)

A University of Saskatchewan report released this month is shedding light on the need for better disaster planning for First Nations communities. That’s after several Pelican Narrows residents reported negative experiences during a wildfire evacuation nearly three years ago.

In August of 2017, several wildfires and deteriorating air quality forced hundreds out of the northeastern community. The report suggests that “provincial standardization and reliance on top-down, centralized approaches stunted the community’s self-determining capacities and did not address their specific needs.”

Interviewees said the experience “was like residential schools all over again.” It stirred up memories of children being forced away from their homes by government agents, left without any control.

Not only were families separated, residents were left to adjust without their cultural necessities in the unfamiliar communities of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.

Many of them have lived in Pelican Narrows for their whole lives and rarely leave their home community.

The report found faults in how emergency agencies categorized vulnerable people, finding that it was determined by static health and medical issues rather than dynamic and cultural risks.

Those that were considered vulnerable, such as the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, young children and pregnant women, evacuated earlier than the rest of the community. The report said that the separation can cause distress and social problems.

This is especially applicable to the separation of elders, who provide guidance and direction.

“Elders are sources of knowledge, resilience, and comfort for the community, and vice versa, during times of heightened community stress. While it might seem logical to assume older individuals are an ‘at-risk’ population, this assumption is potentially harmful to individuals and communities during evacuations,” read the report.

Instead, the research suggested that vulnerability should be treated by situation rather than category. For example, it said, an elderly person is seen as inherently vulnerable regardless of their individual circumstances.

Residents often felt uncomfortable in the larger cities, but preferred Prince Albert because they often travelled there to get groceries. The city is also the location of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation central administrative office.

It was also more common for evacuees to have family or friends in Prince Albert, whereas they likely didn’t know anyone in Saskatoon or Regina.

Some were frustrated by being transferred between locations, many of which were overcrowded. One resident estimated that there were over 1,000 people housed in a gym in Saskatoon.

Another man said the living conditions in the soccer centre were “terrible.”

“There was not much I could do when I came there. I just advised and recommended to Red Cross people, as much as I could, that certain people should be put in hotels due to their conditions. Perhaps even some families wanted to keep their families together to control them better. With the wide-open spaces, kids are almost uncontrollable. They can really get in the way of other kids, other people, get into mischief,” he explained.

Aside from poor living conditions, residents said people in Prince Albert were being racist towards them.

One resident said that “an older ‘white’ woman working at one of the hotels was ‘very stingy’ with their breakfasts.”

“She was even blocking people. At one point she asked me ‘So when do you think you people are leaving?’ And I ignored her. She kept asking ‘When do you think you people are leaving?’ I knew she wanted to get into some kind of conflict, so I told her I didn’t come here to make conversation,” said the evacuee.

The report said that many of the interviewees would prefer to go to a camp setting rather than a city. That, they said, would allow families to stay together no matter how large and children could still play in more familiar surroundings.

While some evacuees had access to traditional food, others didn’t.

Instead of their comfort food of fish, bannock and tea, residents were fed bacon and eggs and coffee.

Some even felt sick, attributing it to the change in meals.

“My kids were not used to eating steak or mashed potatoes from a box. Those kinds of foods, my kids were throwing up, they had diarrhea,” said a health care worker.

Another resident said that at one point someone in charge said the First Nation could provide traditional food, but later said they couldn’t because it wasn’t prepared in an inspected kitchen.

The report said residents in Prince Albert had vouchers for items like food, hygiene products and clothing, but not for items such as gas and tobacco. Tight for money, they couldn’t pay for taxis to visit family, go to the administrative office or shop. The First Nation provided transportation in Prince Albert by a van-taxi service, but there weren’t enough vehicles or volunteers to assist everyone.

The report made 12 recommendations to government and non-government agencies, such as the Red Cross, to improve disaster planning for First Nations communities.

The recommendations include having the communities involved in their own disaster mitigation and planning efforts, using culturally safe policies and procedures, reconceptualizing who is ‘at-risk,’ only separating elders as a last resort and only evacuating northern residents to southern cities as a last resort.

“In Canada, northern Indigenous communities are evacuated on an annual basis due to fire and floods, but little is known about their experiences of these evacuations,” read the report.

Researchers conducted 56 interviews of residents from Pelican Narrows about the evacuation, focusing on the effects on elders and the elderly.

The Ministry of Social Services replied to a request for comment, saying it has not had the opportunity to read the report: “We look forward to learning from the report’s findings and recommendations.”

The report was completed with the help of Richard Kent of the Prince Albert Grand Council and Rob Ferland and Chief Peter Beatty of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. Co-author John Merasty, a Pelican Narrows resident, helped with community research.

The executive summary and recommendations are written in both English and Cree.