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Cree Nation launches a cabin damage assessment registry

BY Patrick Quinn Sep 26, 2023

While parts of Eeyou Istchee are still burning, regional fire marshal Lee-Roy Blacksmith said that fires are becoming less intense and “SOPFEU has withdrawn their troops” – waiting for them to be naturally extinguished. Remaining blazes are still observed by satellite and occasional flyovers to ensure communities are not endangered.

“You won’t see the fires on satellite because the humidity is high,” said Blacksmith. “People want to know if it’s safe to go to their camps. The restriction has been lifted. The roads are open but be cautious that the fires are still burning in those intense areas.”

As this unprecedented fire season winds down, the Cree Nation Government has launched a cabin damage assessment registry, in collaboration with the Cree Trappers’ Association and Niskamoon Corporation. Data gathered from reporting the extent of loss and damages to dwellings and other cultural infrastructure will support remediation efforts and the development of a regional comprehensive strategy. 

With devastating impacts to numerous camps and traplines, land users have begun reflecting on the long-term repercussions to wildlife and the Cree way of life. Fred Tomatuk, chairperson of the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB), told the Nation he had concerns about the forest’s conditions since last winter’s freeze-up. 

“There was no snow when it started freezing so there was a bed of permafrost where the snow sat,” said Tomatuk. “When things did start melting down, whatever melted by day was frozen in the night again. The fires went down four to five feet deep because the soil had never really gotten wet.”

According to traditional knowledge, winters need a warm spell to have good growth in the spring, but that didn’t happen this year. Tomatuk also knew something was wrong when another predictor of summer growth, the pussy willows, didn’t come out until nearly June instead of late March as usual. 

“I keep a diary of weather observations,” said Tomatuk. “During the 41 days we were at our goose camp it only rained for 10 hours. Where the normal shoreline is [on the Eastmain River] you could see the rocks and mud flats. In early spring, I had about 500 sparrows on my yard – nothing was growing so they concentrated where they could find food.”

While he’s previously witnessed two forest fires that swept east to west, this summer’s destruction blazed an immense path north to south. No foliage or blueberries can now be seen along Eastmain’s access road from km 40 to 70, “only black soil and all kinds of rocks you never saw before.”

Since fires ripped through marshlands at nesting season, Tomatuk has observed almost no waterfowl, and an eerie silence has replaced the once plentiful frog song. He said smoke residue forms a slimy barrier on pond surfaces that pushes surviving life to hibernate in the depths. With fish catches a small fraction of their usual level, otter and mink lose their food sources, which is disastrous for the already struggling fur market. 

Observing two moose on a small island of a burnt-out lake along with some beavers, Tomatuk worries where they will find food. The wildfires have upended the EMRWB’s fish research and programs that share harvests with the community. Land users who relied on berry harvests or materials for snowshoe-making are finding their economic prospects uncertain.

“It means a total relocation of the wildlife,” Tomatuk lamented. “Coming back from evacuation, it broke my heart. I got emotional and cried a bit. I can only imagine how some of the Elders feel.”

Before the time of climate change, Waswanipi tallyman Paul Dixon said nomadic Cree hunters looked forward to a new world growing after a forest fire. Birch and aspen sprout up first, mixed deciduous bush that is ideal habitat for moose and smaller game. These are considered natural fire barriers by the Cree but unmarketable “weeds” by the forestry industry, which seeks more flammable spruce and pine.

“When Smokey the Bear outlawed traditional burns, my ancestors moved traditional burns to the main canoe routes only on islands to create blueberry or bear hills,” shared Dixon. “Forestry cannot compare – heavy machinery destroys the earth; scarification destroys the rest. The land starts to erode because no trees are left to stabilize the ground.”

As Waswanipi is the Cree community most impacted by forestry, this summer’s fires have radically altered consultations with Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests. Salvage planning began July 4 while fires were still burning in the region, a fast-track process to appease forestry companies desperate to get back to work.

“Once they’re authorized, they’re going to go into the green areas if we don’t have the salvage plans,” said forestry consultant Allan Saganash. “It’s very important for us – we want them to stay away from the green areas. The amount of timber that burned in Eeyou Istchee is equal to nine annual forestry plans.”

However, industry wants to return to green areas next year, arguing burnt wood will be too damaged by insect infestation and isn’t accessible by road. Saganash said the Crees are filing complaints with the ministry to protest this wastage. While salvaging burnt timber is nothing new, having fires impact 36 of 62 traplines was unimaginable and Saganash believes the Paix des Braves agreement should be amended in response. 

According to a clause in the agreement, seven traplines will close to logging for at least five years after this season because their protected area will be affected over 40%. This will put more harvesting pressure on the remaining traplines. 

With Zone 17 almost completely burned, traplines in Zone 22 will be particularly active as the moose hunting season begins. The CTA is considering how to limit harvests of the declining moose population while supporting the many Cree hunters who lost their camps.

“There’s so much wildlife and habitats lost,” said Saganash. “It’s mind-boggling. They won’t be able to hunt in peace for at least five or six years but they’re still going out there. Even the guy whose trapline burned 100% will go out hunting with the hope there will be some moose in the green areas.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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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.