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Canadian Wildfires Are Displacing Many Indigenous People

By: Jillian Wu

This July, Canadian wildfires are forcing many Indigenous peoples to evacuate from their homes. The fires and smoke made it unsafe to live in places like British Columbia, and Northern Quebec.

Since May, the wildfires have burned over 47,000 square miles of forest, and have displaced over 25,000 Indigenous residents. So far, Canada’s Department of Indigenous Services has paid over 55 million dollars to communities that are affected by wildfires.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, as of July 28, 2023, there are more than 1,000 wildfires burning in Canada, and out of them, 600 are out-of-control. And in July, eight of the nine Cree communities in Quebec had evacuation orders.

Indigenous residents were airlifted by helicopters or by commercial airliners. Other residents that had health problems, young children, and older people took buses.

On an 11-hour bus ride from Nemaska to Quebec City, William Wapachee, 79, who said he had lung cancer, started coughing and had trouble breathing. Before reaching the city, he was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he received oxygen. “I inhaled too much of that smoke,” Wapachee said.

Quebec has been hit by an outburst of wildfires, forcing its Indigenous residents to evacuate. “I’ve never seen that level of evacuation in Cree Nation, simultaneous communities all at once,” said Mandy Gull-Masty, who became the first woman elected grand chief of the Cree Nation in Quebec in 2021. “Never has that happened before.”

Although no one was killed by the fires that are threatening Indigenous communities, there has been a lot of damage caused to the forest, and cultural heritage. The forest fires disrupted the indigenous peoples’ lifestyle of hunting and fishing for food.

“I don’t think these fires will stop until everything is burned,” said Kurtis Black, the fire chief of the Cree nation of Nemaska. “These fires are here to stay until fall gets here — or the snow.”

On July 20, a period of rain helped control the fires and cleared smoke near Nemaska, allowing some residents to return to their homes, but only three days later, the fires came back, and the skies turned orange again.

Diane Amy Tanoush, an Indigenous person, recorded a video of her and other Indigenous people who had been living at a community packing bags and coolers, and putting on N95 masks for the boat ride to evacuate. “This is our fifth time evacuating,” she said.

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