Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to present to your committee.
To start, I'd like to introduce you to the area where St. Theresa Point First Nation is located. It's in northeastern Manitoba and part of the three communities on Island Lake. Island Lake is a lake full of islands that's about 80 kilometres long by 40 kilometres wide going east to west. There are three communities on there. St. Theresa Point has about 4300 members on its band list. Garden Hill probably has about 4,600. Wasagamack has over 2,000. Red Sucker Lake has about 1,200 or more. Nevertheless, there are 12,000 to 13,000 people who are registered treaty first nations people. We are accessed only by air and have access to winter roads, ice roads, for about six weeks now, due to climate change.
What we want to highlight in this presentation is that, as you know, at St. Theresa Point, where I'm from—I cannot speak for the other communities, but I can allude to their involvement in the whole experience—we have an emergency response protocol. This is due to having experienced three major fires coming through the community. In one case, five residential houses burned down.
If I may add at this point, MaryAnn, one of them that burned down happened to be Judy Klassen's house.
So, we have some experience in handling situations like this.
I'd also like to add that way back in 2007, or around that time, we had the H1N1 crisis, and it occurred right across this country. I guess the focal point was at St. Theresa Point. We had to do emergency measures.
We have a protocol that was triggered when the fire started coming toward Wasagamack First Nation because we knew there was an imminent threat from smoke. The forest fire erupted on the north side of Wasagamack First Nation early in the afternoon of August 29, 2017. The wind was coming from the north-northwest direction. A smoke plume quickly arose in the sky and developed into a vast, dark smoke cloud that passed through the sky above St. Theresa Point. The smoke developed energy, and lightning was observed emanating from it.
A forest fire, assisted by a strong breeze, approached Wasagamack First Nation and forced a full evacuation of the community members. The Wasagamack First Nation was evacuated to St. Theresa Point, about six kilometres to the southeast of Wasagamack. The only airport in the area is on an island across from the mainland of St. Theresa Point. The Wasagamack people were assisted by St. Theresa Point First Nation people, who accommodated them at the high school gym and middle years school gym. We also assisted in transporting them in using a barge, a pontoon boat for medical, and also another larger craft for medical evacuations. We also commandeered 16-foot Lund boats from the community—I think about 10 of them—and we assisted in bringing in people from Wasagamack. There were 917 people at both school gyms. We also deployed our school buses to take them from the dock to the school gym. Initially, people were transported to the airport island, and there were 197 people who spent the night at the airport.
With all this happening, we did assist in the evacuation of Wasagamack, and we used our resources to do this. We have been urged by the Red Cross and Indian affairs to submit billings for reimbursement and also for payment for use of these resources or assets.
The health centre and all the St. Theresa Point staff put in their work time after hours to assist in the fire and smoke emergency.
The Wasagamack people were put under a general evacuation order, meaning everyone had to leave for St. Theresa Point. An evacuation coordination unit was established at the first nation office and monitored by the evacuation supervisor. The health centre put together a health priority list that outlined persons with urgent health issues, such as the elderly, newborn babies, chronic needs persons, asthmatics, cardiac patients, etc. They were categorized into priority one, or P1s, priority two, and priority three categories. These were the people who needed to be evacuated after the Wasagamack people had been evacuated the next day, even though the evacuation began the same evening.
St. Theresa Point first nation began evacuating P1s and their families as early as the evening of August 30, 2017 and into the next day, August 31. The number of evacuees totalled over 1,000 people from St. Theresa Point. The first nation leadership had refrained from the beginning to send P2s due to the smoke situation being manageable at St. Theresa Point. We stayed in contact with the Manitoba Conservation unit in the Stevenson Island detachment, and the first nation monitored the situation and was prepared to mobilize P2s if necessary. The first nation sent administrative staff to monitor.
St. Theresa Point first nation's medically challenged people were assigned to the sports complex and convention centre to sleep in dorm-style army cots in Winnipeg. This quickly became an issue, because people were subjected to hardship from the accommodations and care. We set up a unit at a hotel as a base camp for the people of St. Theresa Point. From there, the evacuees were eventually set up in more comfortable accommodations in hotels, thanks to the work of our people.
At this time, back in the Island Lake region, the forest fire continued to present spot fires and strong smoke over St. Theresa Point, creating uncomfortable air to breathe. Most P2s and P3s were required to stay indoors until action could be taken, if the fire erupted again. Cooler temperatures prevailed.
The nearby community of Garden Hill First Nation, 10 kilometres to the northeast of St. Theresa Point, was mainly covered by dense wood smoke from the forest fires to the northwest of its community. They had evacuated due to the heavy smoke covering the community, and people attested that you couldn't even see across a 50-foot clearing to the road. That's how dense the smoke was at Garden Hill.
Most of the Garden Hill first nation people had to be evacuated due to the intense blanket of smoke. When the sky cleared, the conservation sent for professional forest fire workers from British Columbia and other areas in Canada. The teams began controlling the fires by establishing fire lines and starting fires to control existing fires. Chiefs and councils, with the help of Canada conservation, chartered helicopters and small planes to inspect the burned sections to the north of Island Lake. The conservation officers explained that the expanse was covered with burned forests, and community leaders flying in the aircrafts observed the extent of the forest fire. It stretched as far as the eye could see into the northern direction, and all of the natural destruction was observed. Seventeen square miles had been destroyed, land once used by first nations to supplement diet and continue traditional activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, etc.
During the evacuations, there were over 1,100 people from St. Theresa who had been evacuated to Winnipeg, and these were all P1s. Also, there were over 1,200 people from Wasagamack, as many of their members were away from the community at that time during the summer. From Garden Hill, there were 2,900 people who were evacuated.
Coincidentally, at that time—I verified this through the department—there were over 900 people from Poplar River who had previously been evacuated from the east side of Lake Winnipeg. There were over 6,000 first nation people evacuated to the city of Winnipeg due to the wildfires. Throughout this time, they had to endure the situations at the emergency centres, and there was no state of emergency declared by the Province of Manitoba.
Also, for the expenses that were documented, the Red Cross would get pre-approved expenditures from the department, but for St. Theresa Point and other first nations, we've had to take our chances with submissions after the fact.
I just got word on one claim for about $121,000. The letter said it was glad to inform us that $71,000 had been approved. Where do we get the rest of the $50,000? I guess we have to eat that up from our existing budgets that are already strained.
I want to make that last note on what's happening now. We're putting in our submissions to claim for expenses in dealing with the wildfires.
Thank you, everybody, for listening and giving me the time.