CANADA – Indigenous communities were largely neglected during the Fort McMurray wildfire emergency response, a new study suggests.
The study, which took two years to complete, concludes that First Nations and Métis communities were left out of many stages of the wildfire response. CBC News obtained an advance copy of the report.
Indigenous groups from the Fort McMurray region commissioned the report and it was funded with a grant from the Canadian Red Cross.
The report, released Tuesday, blames different levels of government for a lack of leadership, lack of communication and instances of cultural insensitivity during the wildfire.
“It was a major breakdown of communication,” said Timothy Clark, the author of the report and researcher with Willow Springs Strategic Solutions. “I would describe it as completely inadequate.”
The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire is considered Canada’s costliest insured natural disaster; destroying more than 2,500 homes.
More than 80,000 people fled the community during the fire, many ending up in nearby Indigenous communities like Anzac and Fort McKay.
The province and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have already released three assessments that concluded the Fort McMurray wildfire response was characterized by poor co-ordination and a chaotic evacuation.
Both the province and the municipality have pledged to implement the recommendations arising form those reviews.
The new report shows, through a series of focus groups and one-on-one interviews, that Indigenous leaders and band managers were disconnected and kept in the dark throughout the wildfire response.
This disconnect, the report notes, is commonplace in day-to-day operations between governments and Indigenous communities, but intensified during the wildfire.
“The wildfire revealed the depth of this institutional disconnect, which manifested in low levels of preparedness, weak coordination and cooperation,” the report found.
Mistrust and lack of sensitivity
The report found that some interactions between Indigenous communities, government officials and emergency volunteers were marked by a lack of sensitivity and fuelled an atmosphere of mistrust.
One example the report highlights is that some Indigenous evacuees didn’t feel welcomed or complained they were stereotyped by staff at evacuation centres.
Indigenous communities such as Fort McKay, north of Fort McMurray, served as an evacuation point for thousands of residents.
These communities whose populations more than doubled overnight received little to no immediate help from the province or Ottawa to help cope.
“I think people don’t realize that we have one store in Fort McKay and the whole store was cleaned out in hours,” said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis. “All the resources were cleaned out. People were taking food out of their own fridges to cook for people.
“Fort McKay didn’t receive any real support until a couple of days after.”
At a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Fort McMurray, Brad Callihoo, CEO of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation said his community had to issue their own evacuation order, despite threats from the province not to do so.
“I got a phone call from the province saying that we couldn’t evacuate because we didn’t receive official word.” said Brad Callihoo. “[We] were the boots on the ground and [we] knew what was happening.”
Callihoo said if the First Nation didn’t evacuate, assemble its own fire crews and spend $6 million to defend the reserve they would have lost their community.