Report suggests creating permanent wildfire evacuation centre in the north

23 June 2020

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CANADA – A new report is making recommendations for how to keep families together and relieve some of the stress of northern residents who need to be evacuated due of wildfires.

A new report is making recommendations on how to keep families together and relieve some of the stress of northern residents who need to be evacuated from their communities due to wildfires.

Back in the summer of 2017 a wildfire threatened the northern community of Pelican Narrows.

The 3,000 residents were evacuated to Prince Albert and Saskatoon according to protocols of who were most at risk.

In the end, the fire didn’t do much damage, but how the evacuation was handled caused a lot of stress for the residents.

University of Saskatchewan anthropology Prof. Jim Waldram has studied evacuations.

Waldram and a team from the U of S went to Pelican Narrows to interview 56 residents which contributed to a report entitled “Like Residential School All Over Again.”

In the report, Waldram and his fellow researchers highlight the problems associated with evacuating people from northern communities and have made a number of recommendations.

“The biggest issue that we saw in our research, and that continues to vex evacuations, is the splintering of families in which certain individuals are identified as being particularly at risk and are moved out of the communities in sequence according to that level of risk,” Waldram told CBC’s The Afternoon Edition.

Waldram said individuals who are removed end up in different places. In the case of Pelican Narrows, Prince Albert was the first destination, but some went to Saskatoon and others to Regina.

“The extended family, which is the social building block of these northern communities, is being cut up and its parts distributed in different places around the province because of the way in which evacuation policy is implemented.”

One of the main recommendations of the report is the creation of a permanent evacuation facility in a northern First Nation community.

Waldram said the facility would allow family members to stay together and it could be run according to cultural protocols that are more appropriate for northern Indigenous communities.

“If we put some effort into planning a culturally appropriate evacuation centre then we will enhance the well-being of the individuals who go through what is a very distressing experience,” he said.

The current evacuation protocols are based on a particular model and are common across Canada.

“The model is really built along what would be the normative expectations for a southern, non-Indigenous urban community,” he said, adding that “is totally inappropriate for the way in which northern Indigenous people live their lives and experience it in their daily life in their communities.”

Waldram said the province is well-prepared for evacuations because they happen almost every year.

Older people and young children are usually the first to be evacuated from their communities because they are thought to be most at-risk.

“What we learned in the Pelican study was that many of those individuals didn’t see themselves as particularly at-risk. Other residents didn’t see them particularly at-risk,” Waldram said. “And so there was great capacity for these older individuals to remain with their family units as part of the evacuation process rather than being plucked out and sent off to stay in hotels or whatnot in communities at some great distance from where they were living.”

He said young children would leave with their mothers or caregivers while older siblings were evacuated later and may not end up at the same place.

Waldram said the evacuation process should be looking at the broader family unit and make sure they stay together.

“Let’s stop thinking of them as unpredictable emergencies,” he said. “We know they’re going to happen and the climate science is clear we’re going to have more and more forest fires in the north.”

The report also recommends communities be given more control over the evacuation process.

The report said the loss of control felt at the community level makes residents recall what it was like going to a residential school, hence the title of the report.

Residents feel the government shows up, uses its authority and orders people out without any local say.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Having communities and individuals involved in their own disaster mitigation planning;
  • Using culturally safe policies and procedures;
  • Give communities resources to generate and maintain a more person-centred directory of vulnerable individuals;
  • Elders should be recognized as a special resource and source of resilience during stressful times;
  • Evacuation of northern residents to southern cities should be a last resort;
  • Give more resources to expatriate family members who help evacuated residents;
  • Post-evacuation counselling should be more readily available for those needing it;
  • The need for insightful and empathetic reporting of the situation of evacuees by the news media.

The report is the second in a series of evacuation studies undertaken with the Prince Albert Grand Council.

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