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When the smoke clears: Indigenous communities worry about connections to the land after wildfires

It starts with a poplar tree branch.

With a slight hand and a sharp blade, the bark slides right off. Using just the right pressure, and technique honed through practice, the carver makes a series of cuts into the soft wood. In a matter of seconds, he slides the bark back on.

A Grade One student eagerly reaches for the new whistle. He blows air into the tiny wooden instrument, discovering another way to make music.

This is why students come to the Nihithow Askiy Cultural Education Camp — to make new connections with nature.

A young boy holds up a whistle made of a poplar tree branch. Behind him, you can see tall trees and a cabin.
Simon McKenzie holds up the poplar tree whistle his teacher made him at the land-based camp just outside of Stanley Mission, Sask. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

At least once a week, students in Stanley Mission, Sask., come to the site in the woods to learn the Cree language along with land-based ways of living including hunting, gathering and tool-making.

But wildfires have already forced those lessons to change.

“We didn’t do rabbit snaring this year. We’ll let them reproduce,” said land-based teacher Sylvia McKenzie.

“We used to see lots of rabbit tracks out here, but this year not so much due to the fire.”

This year has officially seen Canada’s worst fire season on record. More than eight million hectares have burned so far in 2023.

Much of that land sustains treaty rights such as hunting, gathering and cultural practices. Some members of Indigenous communities worry that, if nothing changes soon, the land and traditional ways of life will suffer.

A smiling woman wearing a red shirt stands next to a colourful sign. The sign welcomes people to the land-based cultural education camp near Stanley Mission in northern Saskatchewan.
Sylvia McKenzie is one of the land-based teachers at Stanley Mission’s cultural education camp. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

Environmental change trickles down to treaty rights

Stanley Mission, located about 500 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, is intimately familiar with wildfires. In 2015, residents were among 8,000 northerners forced from their homes due to raging fires.

The small community of about 1,500 has been evacuated several times since then, including 2021 and 2022, when fire came within kilometres of most houses.

The forest lining the gravel highway leading into Stanley Mission tells the story. 

“The forest you see here are the birch trees that burned in 2022,” said Maurice Ratt, the emergency management co-ordinator for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, which includes Stanley Mission and five other First Nations.

“These trees are dead. They will no longer be able to produce oxygen or regrow, so eventually they’ll rot and fall down,” said Ratt.

He bends down to examine the base of one tree.

“The fire burned beneath the root, and that’s what kills it off and burns it completely.”

A man looks at the camera, smiling. He wears a plain, navy T-shirt. Behind him, you can see a forest with charred trees and some green regrowth on the ground.
As the emergency management co-ordinator for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Maurice Ratt organizes firefighting and evacuation efforts. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

This area saw a moderate fire last year, said Ratt. Small, deciduous trees are already popping up among the dry, burned vegetation.

In some spots, though, the fire burned so hot, it incinerated the mineral soil. Any nutrients that could have supported regrowth are gone.

“There will be growth here, but it will be at least 10 years for that to start happening,” said Ratt.

Fires can be a natural part of a forest’s ecosystem, but a recent study shows climate change and increasing severity of wildfires alter what grows back in Canadian forests. In the most extreme cases, when fires repeatedly scorch the same areas, the landscape could end up looking more like a desert.

Any kind of change in the environment has a trickle-down effect to Indigenous communities who live off the land, Ratt said.

“We lose our traditional lands for things such as hunting and trapping. The animals are being chased away. There’s scarce vegetation for smaller animals such as rabbits to forage for food,” he said.

“When we can’t get to our cabins to install sprinkler systems due to a lack of resources, we lose our livelihood there because a lot of people still live off the land year-round.”

Returning evacuees could face ‘ecological grief’

As of June 27, more than 6,198 people from Indigenous communities were away from their homes due to wildfires.

Other who were forced out since the fire season started in May have since been allowed back home, but returning to find the land razed can bring difficult emotions.

“When you’re trying to find yourself after returning after a fire evacuation, one of the things that really grounds you is being able to go out and participate in your cultural activities — but you can’t do that,” said Amy Cardinal Christianson, a Métis fire researcher with Parks Canada.

“It’s very difficult for people to cope.”

Cardinal Christianson said she’s spoken with evacuees who were “just devastated” to see the impact on the forest.

It can be a form of “ecological grief,” said Cardinal Christianson.

A woman with long, dark hair in a colourful dress looks out onto a section of Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site, where she helped coordinate a successful backburn last summer.
Amy Cardinal Christianson looks out onto a section of Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site, where she helped co-ordinate a successful backburn last summer. (Kory Siegers/CBC News)

She suggests having mental health and cultural supports come to communities post-fire to help people work through those feelings.

“Sometimes, the return can be treated as the end [of the emergency]. I think agencies are starting to step up and provide supports in that way for communities, but I think it just hasn’t been enough,” she said.

More training, better protection

Indigenous Services Canada and the Assembly of First Nations recently updated their five-year strategy that addresses fire protection in Indigenous communities.

It includes goals such as ensuring all First Nations have the highest possible standard of firefighting available.

In Saskatchewan, the province says it has northern First Nations members trained at all levels of firefighting and holds annual training in the north for those who want to get into the industry.

But Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook Searson says there’s still more community members looking to suit up and help, and a thirst for more access to training.

“They want to protect their own communities,” she said.

“We rely on this land.”

A woman wearing glasses and a blazer stands in a forest. She reaches out to touch a thin, black tree trunk. She's looking at someone off-camera, explaining the effects of the fire.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook Searson exames a scorched tree in the forest near Stanley Mission, Sask. (Travis Reddaway/CBC News)

First Nations across the country are responsible for fighting fires on reserve. Provincial or municipal crews call the shots outside of that.

“I hope that we can get to that point where First Nations people are more involved in fighting forest fires,” said Peter Beatty, a former chief and band councillor of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

“They can be an effective resource if they’re asked and equipped to do so.”

Beatty advocated for decades to get better training and equipment for northern Indigenous firefighters. He urges governments to invest more in Indigenous fire crews, who are capable and willing to not only look after their own treaty lands, but help others.

“We have so many firefighters in our communities that are trained firefighters. That’s right across Canada in First Nations communities,” he said.

“Yet the governments don’t want to fully utilize those available resources. They’ll reach out across the ocean and bring in firefighters. Why do you need to do that? You have the resource right on your doorstep.”

In an email, the press secretary for Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness said firefighting needs are being met by both domestic and international resources.

Indigenous Services Canada funds First Nations fire prevention and protection efforts. Last year’s budget promised $39.2 million over five years to support equipment and training in First Nations.

In June, Ottawa announced money to train firefighters in communities that need them. That includes more than 300 Indigenous firefighters and 125 Indigenous fire guardians trained this season, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Land-based camp saved

The group of Grade One students race down a dirt road. Whistles in hand, they pant and giggle their way toward their finish line — a colourful sign acknowledging the land-based camp.

On one side of the sign is a lush, green forest.

Metres away, the trees are black, thin sticks poking at the blue sky.  Pops of green desperately try to make their way through soot-coloured dirt.

“This is where the fire started last spring,” said teacher Sylvia McKenzie.

A colourful sign reading 'Nihithow Askiy Cultural Education Camp.' The forest on one side is lush and green, while the trees on the other side are charred and dead.
The sign guiding visitors into the land-based, cultural education camp outside of Stanley Mission, Sask., was almost incinerated as the 2022 fire started just metres from where it stands. (Travis Reddaway/CBC News)

The camp — itself a way to continue land-based education and connection — almost burned down last year.

A fire guard saved the land, and that means so much for McKenzie and the students who will soon take over stewardship of their community. 

“They’re so proud [of] what they can do out here.”

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