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First Nations Say They’re Not Wildfire Evacuees, But Climate Refugees

Above Photo: Yellowknife evacuee Martha Kanatsiak arrives at the registration office in the Calgary Airport, Albrta, on August 18, 2023. Gavin JohnA/AFP via Getty Images.

Indigenous communities that first warned against burning fossil fuels are now facing permanent displacement caused by climate breakdown.

Patrick Michell has had his trailer packed and ready to go all week.

If he and his family have to flee the path of encroaching wildfires in British Columbia, it will be the second time in three years.

“Here’s where I’m at today,” Michell wrote to The Breach on Monday, attaching a photo of his utility trailer under a smoke-filled sky.

His family has owned the trailer since a record-breaking wildfire in 2021 burned their house down, along with the entire town of Lytton, B.C.

The day of the fire, Michell realized he wasn’t a mere evacuee.

“I was a refugee because I did not have a home to go back to,” the former chief of the Nlaka’pamux community Kanaka Bar said in an interview. “I want people to understand there’s a difference.”

Nothing in Lytton has yet been rebuilt. That includes the house Michell and his wife Tina lived in, which had a solar panel on its roof and toys in the yard for their grandchildren.

The day that he spoke to The Breach, he could point to smoke rising from wildfires in three different directions.

Researchers have found that the Lytton fire and heat dome would’ve been virtually impossible without fossil-fuel-charged climate change, which disrupted an east-to-west jet stream and dried out the soil.

Now, across western Canada, the same Indigenous communities that gave early warnings against burning fossil fuels are among the first to be permanently displaced by climate change—or face a real risk of it. But leaders like Michell are also leading a charge for solutions, such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions, building more resilient communities and transitioning First Nations to clean energy sources.

“We’re no longer planning for extreme weather events,” he said. “We’re living it.”

‘How Many More Hits Can We Take?’

Two years after the fire, Michell and his wife still don’t have a permanent place to call home.

They’ve skipped from a hotel in Abbotsford to trailer parks in Chilliwack and Boston Bar to an abandoned mill site where there was no water or septic system.

Even those who didn’t lose their homes in Lytton came back to find no amenities, he said. Some moved back without water, sewage or electricity and didn’t have their power restored for two years.

A nearby First Nation cleared land and put in water and septic for 20 RVs, so Michell and his wife moved there.

“Just in time, an atmospheric river hit and wiped out roads,” he said. One month after that, temperatures reached record lows. The water line and septic system they’d set up for their trailer on Lytton First Nation froze.

“I have a picture of myself at 4:30 in the morning, putting heat trays on my septic line on the camper trailer I was in,” he said. “It was the first time I cried. I was overwhelmed. How many more hits can we take? Fires. Floods. Cold. How many more?”

Then, Michell’s wife Tina became seriously ill and was hospitalized for three months. Lytton First Nation gave the couple a temporary home. That’s where they were this week, waiting to see if another wildfire would threaten their home yet again.

Michell still mourns for the 18 bookcases worth of books that he lost in the Lytton fire.

He describes the impact that fires, flooding and extreme cold have had on his family and neighbours as a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Every time there’s the smell of smoke in the air, you see anxiety levels shoot through the roof.”

More Than 10,000 First Nations People Have Been Displaced Long Term

Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by wildfire evacuations and thousands of these evacuees have been displaced for the long term, like Michell and his family.

Indigenous peoples make up five per cent of Canada’s population but experience 42 per cent of wildfire evacuation events, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

This year, 25,000 people from 79 First Nations have had to leave home because of wildfires, Indigenous Services Canada told The Breach by email.

In the past decade, 70,824 First Nations people have been evacuated from their communities because of wildfires, the department’s data shows. Another 30,411 people have been evacuated because of floods. More than 11,400 of these evacuees were displaced for longer than three months.

Downstream Of The Oil Sands: Wildfires, Toxic Spills, Cancer

More than 1,500 kilometres away from where Michell is living, residents of another First Nation fear their community could become unlivable. And wildfires are only one factor.

The people of Fort Chipewyan, Alta., known as Fort Chip, are all too familiar with the environmental and health effects of the oil industry. Downstream of the oil sands, the community has been speaking out about its members dying of rare cancers at disproportionate rates for years.

“My uncle Tony brought it up in 1990,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation member Mike Mercredi told The Breach. “He died from rare bile duct cancer in 2006.”

The community is also dealing with Imperial Oil’s tailings pond leak. More than 5 million litres of the oil giant’s wastewater—containing arsenic, dissolved iron and sulphates—seeped into the ground. Residents are terrified that their water and food have been poisoned. “A lot of people are actually scared to live here now,” Archie Cardinal told Imperial executives at a town hall in March.

Then, on May 30, Fort Chip was evacuated as a 8,600-hectare wildfire burned out of control.

The K’ai Tailé Déne community didn’t end up burning down. But the three-week evacuation took a heavy toll, Mercredi said.

At least one elder passed away during the evacuation, losing the chance to ever return home. Others experienced exacerbated mental health and addiction issues because of the stress, Mercredi said.

‘The Land Is Poisoned’

Just as hotter, drier summers are bringing wildfires, increasingly warm winters are also bringing their own threats.

This year, the ice road that connects Fort Chip to Fort McMurray didn’t open until January, Mercredi said. It normally opens in early December.

He said he fears the day that the road is completely unusable because Fort Chip relies on diesel generators for heat and power. Without diesel deliveries, “We’re basically going back 30 years or 40 years and getting woodstoves,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons Mercredi is currently studying for a Master of Sustainability in Energy Security at the University of Saskatchewan—so that he can help his community get off diesel.

“If it fails, we may have to evacuate the whole entire community and be climate refugees,” he said. “Won’t be able to drink the water…And we can’t live off the land anymore because the land is poisoned.”

Years before the 2023 wildfire season, before Canadian forest fires caused dangerously terrible air quality for Torontonians and Montrealers and grabbed the attention of European environmental agencies and the New York Post, Mercredi says he warned that Canada’s oil sands would impact the whole world.

After his uncle died and he noticed other people getting sick, he quit his job operating a heavy hauler at Syncrude and started speaking out about the impacts of colonialism and the oil industry.

“When the stone hits the tailings pond and ripples out…I said that ripple is going to affect the whole entire world,” he said.

“The ripple effect now is everyone’s seeing the smoke. Everyone’s feeling wildfires—not just us in the north, not just us living in the bush, in the sticks.

“Now people in the cities, all the way to the U.S. are saying: ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Hunting Cabins And Fishing Boats—Gone

In Ontario, too, First Nations are losing food sources and reliable transportation routes due to the effects of climate change—and it didn’t just start this year.

“When you hear about the hazard of the air quality in southern Ontario, that’s what we face on an annual basis in the north,” said Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, the only Ontario riding with a majority Indigenous population. “The whole north is just covered in smoke.”

At times, the smoke makes it impossible for planes to take off or land.

“These gravel runways, also known as airports, they’re lifelines to these First Nations,” Mamakwa told The Breach. “Lifelines to health care, to food security, to education. Fuel as well—because not everybody is connected to the grid.”

He said he visited the Oji-Cree community of Kasabonika this summer, where a wildfire was raging nearby. Community leaders told him the fire was getting close to one of their camps used for harvesting food.

“Sure enough, a couple days later…they go visit the site and the camp is no more. All their canoes, boats, they’ve been burned.”

These communities already struggle with food security, Mamakwa said, and wildfires only make the situation worse.

He said the governments of Canada and Ontario need to act with way more urgency. They also need to transfer firefighting resources to First Nations, who have their own firefighting crews.

“These are our traditional territories, we should be given the resources to be able to fight our own fires.”

Lands Have Been Drying Since 1990s

His Nlaka’pamux people, Michell said, first started noticing the effects of climate change as far back as 1990.

Michell says these events are the culmination of hundreds of years of history. He traces the increased risk of wildfires to the 19th century, when the colonial system of private property was introduced to British Columbia.

“For thousands of years, my ancestors actually did proactive forest fire hazard reduction by pruning, cutting, burning,” he said. “[But] when you own property, it becomes private property. That means, ‘Indigenous people: stay the heck out.’”

It became impossible for the Nlaka’pamux to manage forest fire risks on lands owned by settlers and the government, including lands around highways and railways. Michell remembers trespassing as a young man just to fish on his traditional territory.

For decades, he said, the lands have become forest fire hazards as trees died and dry brush accumulated.

Then, there are the changes to weather caused by burning fossil fuels, which Michell says his community has observed for more than 30 years.

“We started walking the land and we started seeing the ecosystems were much drier than our collective conscious knowledge was aware,” he said. “We saw traditional food sources like the Huckleberry and the Saskatoon and the mushrooms, no longer growing where they used to grow.”

“So now we have this combined heat and drought, with weird wind, coupled with this forest fire hazard accumulations. Then it happens: a spark.”

Billions Spent On Pipeline Could’ve Been Spent On Adaptation

As chief in the late 2010s, Michell spoke up against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the increase in fossil fuel emissions that it will cause.

Now that he’s retired—and when he’s not living under the threat of evacuation—Michell continues to call for change.

Canada has poured $30 billion into a pipeline and only $10 billion into climate adaptation, he pointed out.

He wants to see the resources—people, time, money and technology—that Canada spends on fossil fuel development diverted to climate mitigation and adaptation.

“With only six years left to make the substantial investments in transition and adaptation, we don’t have time for tea and cucumber sandwiches. We need to start making decisions and getting shit done.”

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