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Kashechewan and Fort Albany residents spend spring break-up ‘on the land’

BY Ben Powless Jun 19, 2021

Yearly floods returned to communities along the western coast of James Bay, with Kashechewan and Fort Albany once again seeing community members move out onto the land to wait out rising waters. 

Spring flooding was reported in Kashechewan starting April 13, earlier than expected. The community has normally flown members to nearby towns to wait out the floods, but for the second year in a row, chose to support community members returning to the land, which began in 2020 over Covid concerns. 

Both Kashechewan and nearby Fort Albany launched an “On the Land” initiative with the support of the federal government, which provided $4.2 million from the Emergency Management Assistance Program. The funds cover essential costs, but the initiative also promotes traditional food harvesting, intergenerational knowledge sharing and language education. 

About 900 people moved out to the wilderness while others stayed, waiting to see if the floods would reach the community. Elders and others with medical conditions were able to fly to communities like Timmins and Kapuskasing, where hotels were available. 

 “Going onto the land is really peaceful, and no worries happening, like what happens when we go to urban centres,” Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday told CBC News.

Kashechewan reached an agreement with the federal and provincial governments in 2019 that would see the community relocated to higher ground. While that relocation effort was expected to take several years, interim funding was promised for dyke repairs and improved drainage.

A representative of the Kaschechewan Fire Department was only able to confirm that flooding season had ended. Data shows the Albany River water levels rising five metres by April 13, gradually returning to more normal levels by May 16. 

Further north, Fort Severn Chief Paul Burke said that his community didn’t need to be evacuated this spring, but still had problems with ice blocking the river, causing water to crest riverbanks and enter the community. 

Burke says that during break-up, the community hires a helicopter for between 10 days and two weeks to monitory the ice transit. “Three times a day we go out to monitor that. If we issue an emergency, we’re running for the hills,” he said. 

Break-up this year occurred May 12-14. That’s the new normal, Chief Burke observed. In the past, break-up came in June, a change he attributes to climate change. 

“I’ve been chief six years now, and every year it’s getting worse and worse. Last year we were fishing our equipment out of the muskeg,” Burke recounted. The community lost two bulldozers in one year, and finally received funding to realign its winter road. 

The community receives $50,000 from the government for ice monitoring each year but must budget an additional $93,000 to cover costs. Landslides are now more frequent as permafrost declines, while the community designated a no-build zone within 100 metres of the rivers. As well, Fort Severn has made funding requests to move houses inland, away from the river. 

The Kwetabohigan River and North French River – which feed into the Moose River that encircles Moose Cree First Nation – both showed flooding of five metres and two metres respectively by mid-April, returning to normal levels by the end of April, according to Environment Canada. Neighbouring Moosonee was the hottest place in Canada May 19 with the temperature reaching 29ºC, smashing the community’s previous record for that date by eight degrees. 

The Attawapiskat River also showed a metre of flooding by April 16, before returning to usual levels by May 8. That represents flooding nearly a year earlier than in 2020. Meanwhile, the Winisk River, south of Weenusk, rose four metres from mid-April to mid-May before retreating. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.