Canada's Indigenous Community Faces Brunt of Catastrophic Wildfires
By: Jayden Ho
Canada's record-breaking wildfire season has ravaged the country, leaving tens of thousands of Indigenous people displaced and the forests they rely on for sustenance destroyed. The situation has become particularly dire for Indigenous communities, which are facing unprecedented challenges due to the relentless fires.
Since May, over 1,000 wildfires have consumed more than 47,000 square miles of forest across Canada, an area equivalent to the size of New York State. These fires have uprooted more than 25,000 Indigenous residents from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, according to government officials.
The fires have taken a particularly devastating toll on Indigenous communities, which live on the frontlines of many fires and depend on forests for food. Their homes, often located in remote areas, are not a firefighting priority, leaving them especially vulnerable to the catastrophic events.
In northern Quebec, evacuees from the Cree Nation have faced repeated evacuations as fires reignite after temporary reprieves. The situation has become so dire that Mandy Gull-Masty, the first woman elected grand chief of the Cree Nation in Quebec, described her people as "refugees of climate in this territory."
Evacuations have lasted weeks. Families are separated across hundreds of miles, taking refuge in hotels and gyms. Some have been airlifted by commercial airliners or Chinook helicopters, while others have endured grueling bus rides along hundreds of miles of gravel roads.
The physical toll on three people has been significant. William Wapachee, 79, who has lung cancer, was taken to a hospital after having trouble breathing during an 11-hour bus ride. "I inhaled too much of that smoke," he said.
Beyond the immediate threat to human life, the fires have inflicted immeasurable damage to forest ecology and cultural heritage. The disruption to lifestyles reliant on hunting and fishing for food has been devastating.
A single fire near the Quebec town of Radisson, still burning since June 1, is now two and a half times the size of the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. Such gigantic blazes have contributed to the heavy smoke that has blanketed large parts of the United States, leading to warnings about hazardous levels of smoke pollution.
Canada’s Department of Indigenous Services has paid $55 million to communities affected by wildfires. The funds were allocated in order to provide aid for evacuation, assistance, and support for evacuees, as well as future repairs to community infrastructure. These include securing temporary housing in hotels or shelters and supplying essential items like food, water, and medical supplies. However, criticism has been leveled at the Quebec government's policy to largely refrain from fighting wildfires in the province's northern section.
"Our territory doesn't have a super high population, and we don't have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be protected," Ms. Gull-Masty said. "But for us, our territory is our infrastructure."
Quebec's Wildfire Agency defended its policy as necessary due to limited resources across a vast boreal landscape.
The situation remains precarious, with more than 600 fires still out of control, claims the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. The fires are expected to persist until the fall or even until snow arrives.
Kurtis Black, the fire chief in Nemaska, summed up the grim reality: "I don't think these fires will stop until everything is burned."
1. Canada, Natural Resources. “The Government of Canada Is Supporting Canadians through the 2023 Wildfire Season.” Www.canada.ca, 1 June 2023, www.canada.ca/en/natural-resources-canada/news/2023/06/the-government-of-canada-is-supporting-canadians-through-the-2023-wildfire-season.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2023.
2. Laffin, Ben, et al. Canada Is Ravaged by Fire. No One Has Paid More Dearly than Indigenous People. 29 July 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/07/29/world/canada/canada-wildfires-indigenous-communities.html. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.