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Fort McMurray Evacuation, Firefighting Largely Neglected Indigenous Communities

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The massive evacuation and firefighting effort in response to the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016 largely neglected First Nations and Métis communities, according to a two-year study commissioned by the region’s Indigenous groups, funded by the Canadian Red Cross, and released this week.

“It was a major breakdown of communication,” said report author Timothy Clark, a researcher with Willow Springs Strategic Solutions. “I would describe it as completely inadequate.”

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“The wildfire revealed the depth of this institutional disconnect, which manifested in low levels of preparedness, [and] weak coordination and cooperation,” the report stated.

Three earlier assessments by the province and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the formal municipal entity in Fort McMurray, have already concluded that the wildfire response “was characterized by poor coordination and a chaotic evacuation,” CBC reports. “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.”

It adds that the moment of crisis only amplified a disconnect that already characterizes day-to-day interactions between non-Indigenous and Indigenous governments.

When more than 80,000 Fort McMurray residents had to evacuate ahead of (and sometimes through) the approaching flames, many of them sheltered at nearby Indigenous communities like Anzac and Fort McKay, CBC recalls. Yet “interactions between Indigenous communities, government officials, and emergency volunteers were marked by a lack of sensitivity and fueled an atmosphere of mistrust,” the national broadcaster notes, citing Clark’s report. “Some Indigenous evacuees didn’t feel welcomed or complained they were stereotyped by staff at evacuation centres.”

Yet communities like Fort McKay received no outside support in the days after they became evacuation centres, with their populations more than doubling overnight.

“I think people don’t realize that we have one store in Fort McKay, and the whole store was cleaned out in hours,” said Fort McKay Métis President Ron Quintal. “All the resources were cleaned out. People were taking food out of their own fridges to cook for people.” But “Fort McKay didn’t receive any real support until a couple of days after.”

Brad Callihoo, CEO of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation, said the community would have been lost if it hadn’t issued an evacuation order, formed fire crews, and spent C$6 million fighting the fire. “I got a phone call from the province saying we couldn’t evacuate because we didn’t receive official word.” He said. But community members “were the boots on the ground and knew what was happening.”

The report recommended community disaster plans that clearly identify the roles of Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments, hiring and training of more Indigenous responders, cultural sensitivity training for anyone involved in disaster preparedness, culturally sensitive evacuation centres, and extending disaster relief to Métis communities.

“It’s clear that Indigenous peoples faced unique challenges both during the disaster—and afterward in the recovery,” responded Lauren Arscott, press secretary for Alberta Municipal Affairs, who said key ministers and agencies would review the findings. “Alberta learns from every disaster that we face, and this report is an important opportunity to learn how we can improve our emergency response system.”