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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Changes needed

BY Will Nicholls Jul 19, 2023

As of July 5, there are still 100 or more forest fires burning in Quebec. Only 67 of them are in the SOFEU “intensive protection zone”, where all fires are fought at once. As a result, only three of them are considered out of control and are in the Chibougamau region.

In Eeyou Istchee there are 44 fires going but most of them aren’t even being fought. This is because in that region they only fight fires that threaten communities or “strategic infrastructures”, such as mining, forestry or hydro facilities. 

When you consider that the forest fires started in early June, it seems beyond belief that they are still burning. This despite there are somewhere between 1300-1400 firefighters working to stop them. Over 10 countries have contributed firefighters to assist in the problem. A problem that has affected more than Quebec and Canada as smoke has even reached Europe, let alone the US in terms of smoke pollution.

While the rains helped to lessen the threats a heat wave is hitting Eeyou Istchee and that combined with dry conditions could lead to fires intensifying. 

There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That means it is easier to take small steps to prevent something from happening than dealing with a problem once it exists. Another way to look at that is it’s easier to avert a problem than try to repair one.

Something Quebec has never learned from the past it seems. There were problem forest fires in Eeyou Istchee and elsewhere before this, but the political will to address them has been sadly lacking. 

Canadian wildland fire ecologist Robert Grey told CNN the lack of resources is due to funding. “(Governments) don’t typically appropriate a lot of money upfront for firefighting, but once the fires break out (they) can certainly find all the money necessary to supress them.” 

Grey went on to say, “It’s ridiculous. We spend billions of dollars once the fire breaks out, but we don’t invest the money upfront to mitigate the fires from happening in the first place.” 

And the sad truth is right there in front of our eyes and coughs from our throats. The damage from the fires have destroyed forests, animal habitats and the animals themselves. Many camps have been lost at great cost to the Cree hunters, fishers and gathers. The Cree are the largest group of sustainable Indigenous Peoples still practicing traditional lifestyles. Given the losses of the land it is doubtful if this can continue in some areas. 

Financial losses are heavy as well. Talking to a person in Mistissini, he said he and a friend estimated their losses at over $100,000 each. That’s the homes they built, generators, snowmobiles, ATVs, furniture, stoves, fridges, chainsaws, boats and motors and more. Replacing them will take years as most of the Cree don’t have insurance and even if they do the fires might be considered an Act of God and they wouldn’t be able to get anything.

Perhaps a court case against Canada and Quebec as they guaranteed the Cree Way of Life. The lack of prevention and resources to fight these fires could be seen as not fulfilling that provision. Watching your connection to the land go up in flames is not within the “Cree Way of Life.”

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.