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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Evacuation nation

BY Sonny Orr Jul 6, 2023

The house shuddered. The external wall started to cave in. A bulldozer was relentlessly plowing through the wood-structure home and then stopped. A man wearing a hard hat went to check the interior and discovered a good friend sleeping away soundly. After a lot of intense shaking and shouting, the man woke up to discover that he had to leave his home before he was buried in it. 

It was the final days of Fort George Island as a community, as it was being relocated to its new home of Chisasibi. People were being evacuated and homes were either being raised from their foundations and hauled over to the mainland or bulldozed over. Luckily, my friend lived to tell his tale and it always brought up memories of how we used to live before the modern world interrupted our way of life.

A decade later, forest fires were all around the territory, and one of them was engulfing the James Bay Highway. No one really evacuated but as we drove by some towering flames right by the side of the road, a work crew stopped us and ordered us to exit our vehicle, grab a shovel and do our mandatory firefighting job or be tossed in jail if we refused. 

We fought the fire with gusto. After an hour of dodging flames and sparks, the heat was too much. We were given some warm water and allowed to leave after signing a short form. Six months later, I got a cheque in the mail, compensation for my forced labour. 

Three decades later, I had to drive someone’s vehicle from Val-d’Or to Chisasibi, which is a long trip. Fortunately, I had a very talkative passenger and things worked out well – until we arrived in Chisasibi just as the community was being evacuated due to forest fires. I had to hitch a ride and spend the night in Radisson and then catch a flight from La Grande. It was a rough time as I’d had nothing to drink or eat for nearly two days.

Then there was the possible dam breach and flooding of our communities down river, which led to the development of a new escape area in case the levee broke. We had to rush to what is now called the High Ground, where supposedly the onrushing waters couldn’t reach, as Chisasibi was washed away. 

One time, a prank post caused a major ruckus as people panicked and scrambled to save their loved ones. Yes, evacuation does pose a lot of problems for those who enjoy their comfy homes.

This year, entire communities evacuated to other parts of the province, and this was a major sore point for everyone as forest fires threatened everyone in Abitibi and lower Eeyou Istchee communities. As I write this, I hope things have settled down. 

On another note, Father’s Day had a surprise for everyone wishing to cook outdoors. They couldn’t because of the ban on outdoor activities like picnics, bonfires, cooking with an open fire, or anything to do with a spark. Even smoking was banned, but you know those nicotine addicts, nothing better than sucking in more smoke to fill those unhealthy lungs.

Right now, I’m not sure if there will be further emergency evacuations and I’m hoping that this nightmare of hot dry weather fizzles out with some rain. Up North, it’s been over six weeks without any lifesaving water from the skies.

To everyone, stay safe and watch what you burn.

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Sonny Orr is Cree from Chisasibi, and has been a columnist for the Nation for over 20 years. He regularly pens Rez Notes from the cozy social club in Whapmagoostui where he resides.