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AGA Postponed: Fires continue to have wide-ranging impacts on Cree life

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 16, 2023

The situation across Eeyou Istchee remains precarious amidst an unprecedented forest fire season, forcing the Cree Nation Government to postpone the Annual General Assembly scheduled for August 29-31 in Eastmain to October 24-26.

“The priority is to get our communities back to normal,” stated a message from the Grand Council of the Crees. “We do not want the planning and preparation of an assembly to be a burden to a host community which will need considerable time to recover from evacuations and serious interruptions in supply chains.”

Although the region’s road networks hadn’t returned to normal status at the beginning of August, the Billy Diamond Highway, the Trans-Taiga Road and most community access roads opened for restricted use July 25, exclusively for essential services, humanitarian reasons and residents returning home.

After these roads had reopened the previous week, they were again closed the following weekend to allow SOPFEU to extinguish fires along the road. While community members were allowed to travel freely rather than in a slower convoy, it wasn’t always communicated where operations would be carried out, endangering vehicles passing by.

People planning to travel are asked to check for road closures and smoke conditions along intended routes before departure, and to keep watch for large animals taking refuge beside the highway. Travellers can access free N-95 masks from their local Public Security Officer and should carry proof of residence identification to cross community checkpoints.

Local PSOs are working with fire and police departments as the “eyes and boots on the ground,” patrolling access roads early in the morning to send daily reports to SOPFEU about fire and smoke conditions. SOPFEU typically gathers these reports for a 10:30am meeting with the regional operational committee, then decisions at a 4pm meeting are made public by 6pm.

“We don’t want to open the roads really fast just in case it goes out of control,” said regional fire marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith. “We haven’t had enough rain to completely put out the fires. Food and gas deliveries are starting so they’re catching up with their supplies.”

While most people have returned home following evacuations in Eastmain and other communities, the Cree Health Board said that those evacuated from Chisasibi will remain in Montreal until further notice. Air transportation to appointments remained mandatory for clients and caregivers from coastal communities as Cree people who made their appointments independent of Wiihichiituwin were not being allowed to travel south by road.

Canada hired over 300 Indigenous firefighters and acquired specialized equipment to strengthen capacity this summer. Cree recruits have eagerly taken SOPFEU training as quickly as it becomes available. Auxiliary forest firefighters work under the supervision of SOPFEU staff to combat hotspots, small fires that reignite after a blaze has moved on. 

“We’re limited based on the instructors for SOPFEU because they’re all out in the field working,” explained Blacksmith. “I keep asking SOPFEU if we can have another course, but the best reply I get is they’re low on staff. My intention is to get as much as I can.”

After 40 people from Waswanipi and Ouje-Bougoumou received their three days of training, 30 spots in Chisasibi were filled in under half an hour. Although blocked access roads previously prevented recruitment from other coastal communities, 19 candidates from Waskaganish recently completed training to be deployed on the community’s access road, and Blacksmith is working on adding another cohort from Wemindji.

As the fires and restrictions gradually diminish, some Cree in southern communities have been able to assess the damage in the bush. Blacksmith cautioned that there’s a risk these areas may rekindle and SOPFEU remains present. He’s advised the Cree Trappers’ Association not to enter restricted areas until given the go ahead.

“We’re still assessing the impacts of the forest fires,” said the CTA’s Thomas Stevens. “The local trappers anxious to check their camps had an open window – it’s a complete disaster for some of the tallymen. When we have the final numbers, I think it will be over 100 cabins that have burned in Eeyou Istchee.”

Each community gathered information about local impacts that will be compiled in a CTA report. Waswanipi has nearly completed its bleak assessment, revealing a total loss of some traplines and an estimated 26 cabins burned down. As coastal community members begin to inspect their camps, some have shared similar devastation. Stevens said 155 traplines overall have been impacted by this summer’s fires. 

While there are about 900 camps and over 10,000 cabins in Eeyou Istchee, Stevens said only a little over 200 cabins were insured, including likely fewer than 10 of those that were destroyed. When the current policy comes up for renewal following this crisis, he’s worried how insurance companies may respond. 

“The land users are concerned, especially in the remote areas that fly in and out,” said Stevens. “We have to come together as a Nation to help the hunters and trappers affected by these forest fires and the wildlife and culture that’s been lost.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.