By Simon Lambert (University of Saskatchewan), Lorne Stewart (Prince Albert Grand Council), Tina Pelletier (Prince Albert Grand Council), Dee Friday (Canadian Red Cross), and Pat Hassler (Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority)
Prince Albert Grand Council now has a collaborative relationship with the Canadian Red Cross to facilitate recurring evacuations from flooding and wildfire.
Flood and fire, Saskatchewan’s seasonal hazards
Flood and wildfire are seasonal hazards for many northern communities in Saskatchewan, Canada, forcing many Indigenous families to evacuate their homes, often for extended periods. James Smith Cree Nation, Cumberland House, and Red Earth are evacuated to some degree most years due to flooding. A series of evacuations in the 2015 fire season raised concerns over the cultural needs of Indigenous evacuees, particularly Elders. Official Evacuation Reception Centers were established by the Canadian Red Cross in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, and North Battleford in Saskatchewan, and Cold Lake in Alberta. Several First Nations also took in evacuees, such as Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, Beardy and Okemasis First Nation, Willow Cree Nation, James Smith Cree Nation, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and Meadow Lake Cree Nation. Many evacuees were out of their communities for more than a week (Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, 2015). It was, for many community members, a very stressful and traumatic experience.
While governance, operational capability, and capacity are fundamental to limiting the negative impacts on any community during an emergency, an awareness of stakeholder needs and expectations is also vital (McMartin et al., 2018). Indigenous cultures have always valued hospitality and communities often show sensitivity to those in need following a disaster or emergency, whether from their own community, other Indigenous Peoples, or non-Indigenous peoples. A semi-formal ‘Rez Cross’ grew organically from the efforts of Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation to host relatives and others evacuated from the 2015 fires, providing culturally appropriate support around those displaced from their own communities. Professor Jim Waldram of the University of Saskatchewan was among those calling for a formal acknowledgment of what Beardy’s and Okemasis undertook: “It’s a model that by definition is going to greatly reduce distress” (CBC News, 2015).
A report commissioned by the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) to look into the response and evacuation procedures of the 2015 Saskatchewan wildfires revealed a lack of defined roles and responsibilities that made it difficult for community representatives to address community concerns or help ensure the wellbeing of evacuees (Betancur, 2019). Conspicuously, the NITHA report noted, “a general sense that the provincial response lacked cultural awareness and sensitivity” (Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, 2015, p. 9). Communities were in need of a new relationship with emergency partners.
A new relationship with Canadian Red Cross
If there is one benefit from an emergency it is the opportunity to revisit procedures. Out of this disconcerting situation came a new approach. Lorne Stewart, emergency response coordinator for Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC), and others saw the opportunity to put in place a better way to catalyse the joint capacities of Indigenous communities and the Canadian Red Cross in evacuation planning and response. Discussions ultimately led to the signing of a historic agreement in March 2018 formalizing the relationship between PAGC (representing 12 Indigenous communities) and the Canadian Red Cross. At the official signing, the Grand Chief noted “[The] significant step forward in building a more cooperative and collaborative relationship between the Prince Albert Grand Council and the Red Cross. This agreement means, during the time of emergency, we will be able to participate and contribute in planning and working together towards our common goal, providing the best support and services to those affected by emergencies in northern communities” (Marr, 2018).
The CRHNet 2018 Conference
The Agreement was the subject of a panel at the 2018 CRHNet Conference in Vancouver. The panel was chaired by Dr. Simon Lambert from the University of Saskatchewan while the appropriate opening and closing of the session was undertaken by Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte. The panellists spoke personally of their experiences and aspirations for the communities of PAGC. Lorne Stewart talked humbly about his role as an on-the-ground coordinator. Tina Pelletier, also PAGC, spoke on the experiences of working in emergency management and then taking on Red Cross volunteer training. Dee Friday, who works for the Saskatchewan Red Cross, told of her delight in finding that the Red Cross could support her in helping her own community. Pat Hassler gave a little of the history of how the Agreement came about: a coincidence of the right people at the right time, exchanging insights and agreeing to formalize a better way to do things in the future.
The close-knit nature of Indigenous communities and the acknowledgement and maintenance of interconnections between different communities is in many ways a defining feature of Indigenous cultures. “Our communities are so close-knit,” Hardlotte said. “When one is in need, we treat each other like an extended family” (Marr, 2018).
Empowering Indigenous emergency management
Other First Nations, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are looking to emulate PAGC’s agreement with the Canadian Red Cross. Despite the geographical isolation, northern communities in Saskatchewan are innovating and leading the emergency management world in recognizing the strengths and capacities of Indigenous Peoples. Lorne Stewart has been particularly busy visiting northern communities and recruiting willing volunteers, recording his epic efforts by social media on PAGC’s Facebook page.
Canadian Red Cross are willing and able to help. What communities bring are desire (for greater self-sufficiency), skills (as first responders, as people of the land), and their indigenous knowledges that provide locally-specific information grounded in ancient philosophy. With the increasing frequency and intensity of flood and wildfire events, training, resourcing and collaborating with new partners, and old partners in new ways are fundamental to improving the resilience of Indigenous communities.
Betancur, S. 2019. Inside the Rez Cross: An assessment of hosting evacuees during a wildfire disaster in Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation. Masater of Arts Masters, University of Saskatchewan.
CBC News. 2015. Saskatchewan First Nation sets up ‘Rez Cross’ wildfire evacuation centre [Online]. Toronto: CBC/Radio-Canada. Available: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/saskatchewan-first-nation-sets-up-rez-cross-wildfire-evacuation-centre-1.3143017 [Accessed].
Marr, T. 2018. Red Cross, PAGC formalize collaboration agreements for disaster assistance. PA Now, March 2, 2018.
McMartin, D. W., Sammel, A. J. & Arbuthnott, K. 2018. Community Response and Engagement During Extreme Water Events in Saskatchewan, Canada and Queensland, Australia. Environmental Management, 61, 34-45.
Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority. 2015. 2015 Saskatchewan Wildfire Study. Prince Albert: NITHA.
Simon Lambert is from Aotearoa New Zealand, a member of Tuhoe and Ngāti Ruapani mai ki Waikaremoana tribes. He is an Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
Lorne Stewart is from Cumberland House and is the Emergency Response Plan Coordinator for Prince Albert Grand Council.
Tina is a member of the Canadian Red Cross’ Emergency Response Team, the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) Search and Rescue Team, and the PAGC Cultural Wellness (Crisis) Team. Prior to moving to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, she worked for the United Nation’s Interagency Rehabilitation Programme (UNIRP) for former child soldiers in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Dee Friday is a Saulteaux from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan and is an Indigenous Peoples Community Officer in Emergency Management for the Canadian Red Cross. Throughout her 13 years with the Red Cross, she has worked tirelessly to build partnerships between the Red Cross, Indigenous Communities, and Tribal Councils.
Pat Hassler is an Advanced Care Paramedic for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority.