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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

BY Will Nicholls Jun 16, 2023

When wildfires in Alberta and Nova Scotia forced the evacuation of thousands a few weeks ago, many in Quebec were counting their lucky stars a little early during what seemed then as a late and chilly spring. Then, perhaps predictably, the consequences of climate change caught up with us, too.

And nowhere is global warming as severe as in the North. Forest fires are a natural and necessary phenomenon, but they are occurring with greater frequency, over wider areas, earlier and earlier each spring. And all that smoke blanketing cities from Montreal to New York will only contribute to faster warming of the planet.

A report by an international team of scientists last fall noted that soil moisture last year in Northern regions was drastically lower than normal. Combined with continuing drought and high spring temperatures in the North this spring, it was almost inevitable that the tinder-dry forests would erupt into the record-setting infernos we’ve seen this year.

On a personal level, the evacuations of vulnerable people from our communities induces great hardships. Only a couple weeks ago I helped my mother move from an assisted-living complex in Ottawa to an Elders’ home in Chibougamau, much closer to our community of Mistissini. Only for her to be uprooted yet again by the wildfires.

My mom has limited mobility because of Parkinson’s disease and gets around in a wheelchair. When Chibougamau was evacuated June 8, her home’s residents were informed at 10 pm that they would be leaving for Roberval. A special medical bus would take her and other residents with limited mobility to safety. They were allowed one bag each and their wheelchairs.

Even though the medical bus had the same priority as an ambulance the overnight trip took over eight hours. Mom said that they passed many vehicles but fortunately saw no fires or smoke on the journey. However, that trip was taxing on the passengers as they couldn’t use a washroom or rest easy in the bus.

Others making the same forced journey had a much longer time on the road due to two construction sites that reduced the highway to one lane with unnecessary traffic lights to allow non-existent travellers heading north to pass. This led to about a 100-kilometre traffic jam, according to an Ouje-Bougoumou resident. Later the problem was taken care of, and traffic started moving again.

Despite all the problems, we must acknowledge the courage and determination by firefighters, local leaders, health boards, education organizations and simply people in doing what people should do in the face of a disaster. As we saw during the pandemic, the Cree Nation knows how to come together and support each other in the face of emergencies.

But there is little that our small population of Cree people can do in the face of climate changes caused by decades and decades of global carbon emissions – even though we as a Northern people face more drastic consequences. We do need to document that change in the climate and help each other adapt as best we can. We should stop blaming each other and start coming together to reduce the impacts of this new reality on our future generations.

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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.