Evidence of meeting #83 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was evacuated.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Keith Maracle  President, First Nations National Building Officers Association
John Kiedrowski  Project Manager and Consultant, First Nations National Building Officers Association
Viola Thomas  Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc
David McDougall  Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation
Al Richmond  Chair, Cariboo Regional District
Judy Klassen  Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

12:15 p.m.

Al Richmond Chair, Cariboo Regional District

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen and Madam Chair, for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I'm Al Richmond, the chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, a regional government in the central part of British Columbia. We are a large area of 80,000 square kilometres. We have a rural population of about 60,000 residents. We have 15 first nations, and one, of course, is the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, which just had the land title case settled in the Williams case.

You may have heard that our region was significantly impacted by wildfires last summer. Our emergency operations centre was open for an unprecedented 77 days. During this period, we had over 211 wildfires in our region. As a result of those wildfires, we issued about 149 evacuation orders and alerts, which is a staggering number. During most of these types of events, we might do six or seven, but it kept changing.

Throughout the summer, nearly 36,000 people in the Cariboo were put on evacuation alert and order, equating to about 60% of our population. In fact, 48% of our population was evacuated over the summer. These numbers reflect the data we have for our regional district residents and municipal residents, but they don't give the full impact on first nations communities in our region. Through our response, we had over 167 people working, because you can appreciate that, when we had our main offices evacuated, we had to bring people in from the outside. We brought in about 167 people over the period of 77 days with the co-operation of the Province of British Columba and various local governments throughout the province to help and assist us in doing the various tasks that we have in our EOC. It takes about 44 people to run an emergency operations centre of our size.

The unfortunate news is that we lost around 60 homes, as well as another 167 structures, for a total of about 227 structures. What is very fortunate for us, and we're thankful for, is that we had no fatalities. We did have some seniors and some people with complex care issues who passed away, not directly as a result of the fire, but perhaps indirectly in the transfer to other health locations because our hospitals were evacuated.

In B.C., local governments operate their emergency operations centres to respond to emergencies in their jurisdictions, and we have the ability to issue evacuation orders and alerts. The regional district has the authority, and our local municipalities and first nations also activate their emergency operations centres to respond to emergencies, and we all report to the PREOC centre of the provincial government. In our case it's in Prince George, and there's a central operations centre in Victoria. As local governments, we work together where we can, but we all have separate authorities, and we all issue our own evacuation alerts and orders for our residents.

Specifically referring to first nations in B.C., they issue a band council resolution to evacuate or to place residents on alert. We have no authority over the residents or their areas, because it's federal jurisdiction, but we work with them on a government-to-government basis to coordinate adjacent evacuation orders and alerts. We were very successful this summer in working with our first nations partners. We had a liaison from the Province of British Columbia in our emergency operations centre throughout the emergency who helped coordinate the flow between the regional district and various first nations. We included the first nations communities in our order and alert information in our public mapping program at their request, so all the residents in our region could see one map with all the alerts and orders.

Our message to first nations is that we will come and help and do everything for you if we receive an invitation. We have to recognize that there are autonomous levels of government. We are pleased if they invite us and ask for our assistance, but we're always cognizant and respectful of the fact that, when we go into their territory, we recognize the chief and the power of their councils. I can't say that enough. We're here to help. We're not here to tell people how to do things.

We coordinated the timing of our orders with the first nations, and if they were interested, we made some changes if they were at all possible. This meant we issued several joint press releases, hosted joint press conferences, and held some joint public meetings that were quite successful.

One challenge we saw with the first nations communities in the emergency this summer was how the different communities had varied understandings of their own authority as a local government. In some cases, they have limited capacity to respond. Some of our first nations set up their own emergency operations centres, issued orders and alerts, and coordinated emergency services for some residents without difficulty.

As for other first nations governments, I had a chief in our office who didn't know that they had the authority to do what we did. She thought we did it. She thought our evacuation orders applied to her, and I explained to her that no, she needed a band council resolution, and if they needed our assistance we would help them write that resolution. We were there to help, not to obstruct.

So they went back and managed through their own, but that chief and I had very close contact through the remainder of our event and evacuations here. It was not the proper time to build relationships, but we improved our relationships there.

We also had regular meetings with the band representatives to discuss how we would manage re-entry to our communities. I found in most cases that while it's important to have staff communicating with first nations staff, it's extremely important to ensure there's leader-to-leader interaction, because if you don't contact the leadership, if I didn't call the chief, they felt we weren't treating them as equals and they wanted that interaction.

The chiefs attended the first few meetings we had with respect to re-entry in our community. After that they sent their staff, and I was able to remove myself as it became a staff-to-staff conversation. We needed to keep in mind that for significant things we would contact them directly.

Overall our response in the region was quite successful this summer. We lost no residents. Our residents co-operated and left the area safely. We were able to adapt and refine our policies and processes as we responded, and we were able to coordinate with our local governments and learned a lot.

There's always room for improvement. Permitting re-access to locations was a challenge for us, and we solved some of those issues by working with our cattlemen's association on agricultural issues.

The reason I'm not in a place with the technology that would allow me to video conference with you is that we've been conducting 18 community meetings over the last two weeks to talk to residents about what they thought went right and what they thought went wrong so we can learn from our experience this year and move forward to do a little better job should this happen in the future, although I pray and hope that no one has to experience what we did this past summer.

Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes my opening remarks. I always learn more by listening, and so I'd be quite pleased to take any questions at this time.

Thank you so much.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We are going to hear from MLA Judy Klassen and then we'll come back to with questions, I'm sure.

Judy, welcome to our committee, and please go ahead. You have 10 minutes for your presentation, and then we'll have questions after that.

12:20 p.m.

Judy Klassen Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Thank you for inviting me here to speak. I am the MLA for Kewatinook here in Manitoba. I have 16 communities in my riding. Two are towns, and then I have 14 first nations, 11 of which are remote fly-in communities, and of course Churchill is now a remote fly-in community.

The wildfires continuously force my people out of their homes and into shelters and hotel rooms down south. Typically we use Brandon and Winnipeg. This year, over 6,500 people from first nation communities were forced to be evacuated from their homes. However, with respect to Island Lake, such an event did not need to occur. If proper fire prevention methods had been in place, as well as proper actions taken on behalf of Manitoba Conservation, there would not have been a need for people to be evacuated. I have not received the report yet as to the cost of this unneeded evacuation, but I am waiting patiently.

In mid-August, there were concerns about the fire situation developing close to Wasagamack First Nation. Residents had been complaining of the heavy smoke coming into the community. On some days, the smoke was really thick due to the wind direction. People, especially those with respiratory issues, were having difficulty with the air quality. Our people were told that the local conservation officers and the leadership were helping keep an eye on the fire. There could have been better planning. The fire location was known and the fire was small. It was less than 700 hectares. If it had been dealt with sooner, there would have been no need for the Island Lake evacuation.

The leadership did put in a request to have water bombers deal with the fire, but it was denied. The chief of Wasagamack First Nation, Alex McDougall, told me that the conservation officer, CO, stated that the fire near his reserve was not within their jurisdiction. I am still getting that investigated, as the CO hasn't provided a response as of yet.

I also need to point out that there was a small kitchen fire in one of the restaurants on Stevenson Island, where the CO office is located, and a water bomber was called in to help put out that fire. There are many Garden Hill members who are adjacent. Those closest to Stevenson Island are quite angry about that fact today.

On August 29, the Wasagamack First Nation leadership announced a state of emergency, and that priority one residents would be evacuated to St. Theresa Point, to be further evacuated to Winnipeg. I must state that Wasagamack First Nation does not have an airstrip, so we share our airstrip in St. Theresa with the Wasagamack people.

They had to go by boat. The smoke had blackened the sky, making it quite hazardous. There were two prenatals who lost their babies in the following days because of that hazardous trip to the St. Theresa First Nation. Initially, we had only about 300 people who were going to be evacuated from Wasagamack as priority one. They consisted of the elderly, the prenatal, and those with respiratory illnesses, but within an hour of the announcement, due to the sudden change in wind direction, all members of Wasagamack were ordered to get to the docks for transport to St. Theresa Point First Nation, which is 15 minutes by boat.

I have many recommendations in my full report, but my number one recommendation is to continue with East Side Road Authority's plans to build a common airstrip capable of handling larger aircraft for both the Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point first nations. I know that provincially we have shut down ESRA, the East Side Road Authority, but the roads identified in that project still need to be made. We need access for health, economic opportunity, cheap housing materials, and food security. There are many reasons why we need those roads. It should be noted that, as I stated, Wasagamack does not have its own airstrip. People must travel to St. Mary Island. That is where our airport, St. Theresa Point's airport, is located. Again, it's 15 minutes by boat for Wasagamack, and five minutes for St. Theresa Point band members.

Planes could not be sourced by the Red Cross to come to help with the airlift. That resulted in nearly 200 evacuees having to wait and stay at our airport, as well as being housed in St. Theresa Point schools for the rest of the 1,200 Wasagamack First Nation members.

After the announcement, both St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nation had to announce their evacuation due to the fire growing from 700 hectares to, I believe, 22,000 hectares. Over 3,700 people were identified as having to leave. Upon arriving in Winnipeg, we maxed out the hotel rooms in the city and in Brandon. The majority were put into a temporary shelter at the RBC Convention Centre and later the Leila soccer complex.

The handling of the evacuees at the temporary shelters was horrific to witness. People who had just had open-heart surgery and amputations were put onto hard cots. They were given only one measly blanket. The buildings were very cold and drafty and very bright, so sleep was not to come.

Elders and prenatals were not placed near bathrooms. Exhausted mothers were chastised when their children ran freely as they were looking for something to do. We lost children within the building, and the security would not lock down the building for us so that we could locate these kids who went running freely. One child even managed to get on a city bus. Luckily by evening, within four hours, she was located and returned to the centre.

That was in the early days. Some mothers had not slept in nearly 48 hours, due to having to stay at the school. Evacuees were forced to wait in lines for up to eight hours to be registered, to be given a chance to eat food or relax comfortably. I asked the Red Cross site manager to allow—

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Judy, we need to pause. We have a technical problem. You're now speaking French. We want to understand you. We'll go right back to you. You won't be penalized.

Okay, we're good. Please go ahead.

12:30 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

Evacuees were forced to wait in line for up to eight hours because of the slow registration process by CRC—the Canadian Red Cross—before they were even given a chance to eat food or relax. It was quite frustrating.

I had asked the Red Cross site manager to allow our own people to help with the registration, because there were only eight people registering at a time and perhaps two or three were on a break, meaning five people were registering the 300 to 400 people in line at a time. It was heartbreaking. I stopped asking after being denied twice.

It was after his shift had ended and his replacement came in that I appealed to the second site manager, and he let us get our own people in line. For all the preliminary data—names, addresses, birth dates—our own people didn't have to ask the parents the kids' names, because they already knew them, so we got through. It was the same for the medical conditions. Our people knew what each other was suffering from, and that saved the embarrassment of having to publicly list all your issues with someone else sitting right beside you.

We got through 300 people in less than an hour. As the buses came in, it was easy to manage people who were coming in off the bus.

People were starved. Many Wasagamack people said they wished they hadn't been forced to leave St. Theresa, as our own people fed them far better than the Red Cross did. There were gracious donations of food, clothing, and items from the general public—Manitobans—which the Red Cross did not want to handle, but we found a way to accept them, each band having set up a receiving unit in hotels throughout Winnipeg.

After an evacuee was processed, they were allowed to eat. There were then issues with hygiene and sanitation. Everyone was completely smelling like smoke and was dirty from having to sleep on airport floors or outside the airport while waiting for a plane. There were no facilities that would allow for our elders or our children or young mothers to wash their clothes or take showers. Doctors, health care aides, or nurses were not made available upon the arrival of our people, despite many issues.

These were our priority one people; all had health issues. I personally called 911 there at RBC Convention Centre so that my people could get the medical aid, as many evacuees were told by Red Cross staff to find their own way to health care clinics—of which typically they wouldn't have any knowledge, as they were not Winnipeg residents—or were told to go and wait in line at hospital emergency rooms.

Going forward, on-site medical care should be a priority for evacuees, particularly in the event of a natural disaster, so that the sick and elderly can receive the care they desperately need. We have had many elders suffer from pneumonia because of the draughty evacuation shelters. As well, our newborns and our prenatal women all have serious issues with health because of what they went through.

Regrettably, some of our hotel evacuees did not fare much better. Some of the hotels had no restaurants. Even when they did have a restaurant, many evacuees ended up paying out of pocket for food or outright starved, as the food vouchers given to them were insufficient. Also, the menu selection was very limited. Not many elders can digest pizza or spicy foods.

Again it was my own people coming to the rescue. We've had first nations from the area surrounding Winnipeg come in with moose meat, goose, fish, bannock. We were able to find kitchens. It was very hard to find kitchens—

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Ms. Klassen?

12:35 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Hi, Judy. I'm sorry, but we've run out of time. You can, though, submit your brief to us. We need to move on to questioning. I'm so sorry I had to interrupt your presentation.

Moving on to questioning, we start with MP Mike Bossio.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you, Chair, and thank you both so much for being part of this today. It's valuable information that will help to inform this report.

Ms. Klassen, several of your photos on social media put the wildfires into perspective for Canadians on the ground and across the country. They showed the scale of the wildfires and the emotion of the evacuees. What part of the story do they not tell? Can you provide some further perspective that goes beyond the photos?

12:35 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

Yes. One of the things that my people are known for is their resilience. We're known for not sharing our issues. Privately, I had one prenatal mother who had a two-week old, just standing in the middle of the shelter, who was just outright crying. She was so worried about the issues with the mumps outbreak that occurred. Her baby was two weeks old and was not immunized. They weren't putting her into a hotel room and she was just so despondent, so I feared for her. We have also a high rate of suicide and there were people who actually attempted suicide. There were people who ran away. We did have children taken away from us due to CFS issues. We know our people who are intergenerational trauma survivors and they are alcoholics, but we couldn't do anything for them.

It was just heartbreaking. I told the media several times that they didn't need to know all the issues that we went through because they could just believe me that we were facing heartbreak.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.

Are there any local people with emergency management training in any of the first nations in the region?

12:35 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

Yes. However, the funding was taken away. It was unfair. We're trying to get those plans back into place, but everything was cut off under the Harper government for a lot of our programs in the first nations. We're still seeing the fallout of that to this day. Thankfully, there were a lot of initiatives and we're working with the government to try to get those back into the communities, but it's a long process. I have submitted proposals and I'm waiting to hear back.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

When we were visiting Winnipeg recently as part of our land claims study, we came across Kapyong Barracks.

We talked about the lack of hotels and that people were sleeping on floors, soccer pitches, and cots, while elders got chills that could cause pneumonia, etc. As you were speaking, I was thinking about that barracks sitting there, basically falling apart. Do you not think that maybe it might be a good idea to turn that into an evacuation centre? I know that many have tried to say that we should hand it over to indigenous communities, but maybe we should consider looking at that as an opportunity to make it a permanent evacuation centre.

12:40 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

I believe that it would be better for it to go to the indigenous community because I know for sure that they would open their doors readily and easily to indigenous people when they are evacuated. My goal is that people do not need to be evacuated because we do have the knowledge. Way back when, we had indigenous knowledge on fire prevention and I put that in my proposal. It's similar to what the B.C. indigenous people do. I know that they have ideas and it's traditional knowledge to create fire breaks around communities. However, I'm sure that if the indigenous people were given that opportunity, those barracks would be open to our people if we had to use them as an evacuation centre.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

You made a very good segue into my next question about prevention and the creation of a fire marshal position, which once again, should be indigenous-created, indigenous-led, and indigenous-trained.

I'd like to get your thoughts on the difference that you feel a fire marshal would have made, leading up to this emergency situation in Manitoba.

12:40 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

Yes. There was a great person by the name of Ivan Mason. He had those plans readily available. He's not in our communities any more because his job got cut, but when he was there in our communities, we never had to face this issue of running here and there at the last minute trying to keep all our people safe.

I faced a forest fire once before and ended up losing my home in that forest fire. I believe my chief mentioned it earlier. The process that time compared to the process that people went through this year is very shocking and very sad. We should be listened to. We know how to help our people. We have that intelligence in the communities. We just don't have the permission.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Would a fire marshall's office, then, ensure that first nations are properly involved in emergency planning, in emergency preparedness, prevention, and in evacuation or non-evacuation, as far as dealing with wildfires is concerned? Do you see that as a pivotal role that could create a standard of service and fire safety across all indigenous communities nationally?

12:40 p.m.

Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

Judy Klassen

Definitely. There has to be something in place. We need those plans worked out. I explained that we have practice sessions on what to do during evacuations. We need something like that for first nations. That was what my proposal was largely based on.

It was sad to see after we had marched from the Leila Avenue complex all the way to the legislative building that our premier, Brian Pallister, responded in a tweet. We're a first nations community and barely have access to the Internet. We wouldn't download the Twitter app. That was how he responded to me, yet I work with the guy in the legislative assembly. I was really shocked at that type of treatment, which led me to put a resolution forward for the government to respect first nations leadership as governors in their own right and make a phone call.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you, Ms. Klassen.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

We've gone over the time on both sides. Let's try to be cautious.

We'll move to MP Cathy McLeod.

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you. I'm going to be directing my questions mostly to Mr. Richmond.

We heard from Viola Thomas, who lives in the south of my area. Al Richmond lives north where it intersects higher up, another area that was extremely impacted. I do have to give a great shout out to our local government that, for eight or nine weeks, worked 16 to 20 hours a day dealing with this and really were on the coalface of the fire challenges. It took a huge amount of energy and effort to take care of their communities.

I know one of the challenges in the area, both within the ranching community and within the first nations community, was the conversation around, “We know our land, we know how to deal with things, and if we stay behind we can take some protective measures that the government doesn't have the capacity to do.” In Australia, they have a program called “Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early”, and they actually acknowledge and train community members to respond in that way.

Mr. Richmond, have you any comments around those particular challenges? Obviously we always want to keep people safe, but we also have people who are desperate to protect their land, their communities, and their livelihoods.

12:45 p.m.

Chair, Cariboo Regional District

Al Richmond

I'm glad you got the title right, because what has come out of Australia is ”stay and defend”, which has been misleading because most people haven't delved into the issues of what that actually means. One of the concerns is that they train people in British Columbia, both the ranching communities and the first nations communities. Of course, the first nations are autonomous and can stay and defend their communities. We've had an issue where our forest service needs to work better with the ranchers and work with them in defending the land. There are some good points to be made about their knowledge of the local area, about their ability to defend, about the fact that when they have a large hayfield or a large irrigated field, the fire is not likely to get to them.

You need to look at the defend policy in Australia and say that there are probably some good things there, and there are some bad things too. If you look at Black Saturday, there were so many people who died in 2009, some 173 people, defending their homes. Sometimes what happened is that it was too late to get them out.

With many of our evacuations here, it was because of lack of egress. We had to get people out because we were losing a way to get them out, because of the limited ability to exit the community. That's a challenge.

Training is paramount. What the forest service in British Columbia tells folks is that they need to have these courses. Of course, they don't sign up for them early enough, and then in the middle of an event they want to become partners in dealing with fires.

The ranchers have equipment. The ranchers know their area, and we have to encourage, and we will be encouraging, the forest service to work with them.

In terms of partnership issues, we saw areas where incident commanders worked well with the local community, worked well with the local ranchers, and then we'd see that incident commander change and the new one would have a different philosophy. If you can believe it, he would actually send them away and say, “We don't want you. Get out of here. You can't help us.”

I'm on a conference call today, and one of the challenges in our area, and I would suspect in Manitoba and other locations as well, is that we put all this money into improving broadband and cellular services, and the statistics say how much of Canada has those provided population-wise. However, the reality is that a vast area of Canada, rural Canada, has not been provided with broadband services, so our problem with communicating this stuff is a lack of broadband, a lack of cellular services to get our messages out. That's a huge challenge to rural and indigenous communities.

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you. I guess if some support from the federal government is ultimately offered to ranchers, maybe it would be appropriate to look at and also make available that sort of training and support for the communities in that area.

12:45 p.m.

Chair, Cariboo Regional District

Al Richmond

I think it would be a great thing to see another level of government put forward assistance. Of course, we always found that you would check with us regularly to see if you could assist from a federal point of view, but we need the province to request help from the federal government. There needs to be more of a partnership together so that things can be done in the middle of an event instead of waiting for paper to be processed and establishing certain states of emergency.

I think this would be a very proactive program to get some training in place and to better understand it so that we can equip people. Remember, those folks who decide to stay and defend need to realize that they need to be physically fit to do that. They need to be able to prepare for some of the situations they're going to face.

You're well aware of the situation, Cathy, down in Loon Lake, where people stayed and hired a private company to defend their property. They were successful, but I think they said they'd never want to go through that again, because the fire rolled over them. Fortunately, they survived. Rank five and rank six fires are not something you can stop. They just keep coming.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

I think we have two very different examples here today, and two very different structures. In British Columbia we have an agreement with the province. The EOCs and the emergency support services were coordinated provincially, with the Red Cross playing a role but a different role than the one they played in Manitoba.

I think it would be really good to try to understand which model actually works a little better. My sense is that when you have the province as a partner, and the Red Cross as a partner, and all levels of government, you perhaps can be a little more sensitive. With the emergency support services centre, I know that registration is always a challenge, but when it's run locally by community members, do they have the capacity to be a little bit more sensitive than when it's run through an organization like the Red Cross?