Lessons Learned from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation on the Front Line of the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire Evacuation Efforts

by Dylan Landstrom and Crystal Lameman

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation (BLCN) is located in Treaty No. 6 territory, Alberta, approximately 220 km northeast of Edmonton, Alberta.  The BLCN has approximately 400 members living on-reserve, with a band list of approximately 1200.  The BLCN are a fully self-sufficient, self-governing First Nation with housing and complete infrastructure.  The community has a school, head start, daycare centre, health services centre, addictions treatment centre, administration building and maintenance department.  The Beaver Lake Cree are a Cree tribe who still actively exercise their inherent and Treaty Rights to hunt, trap, fish and gather, while practicing sustainable management of their resources.  The Beaver Lake Cree actively practices community principles, hence the immediate response to assist the Fort McMurray evacuees, of whom at final count the Nation had accommodated 45 evacuees and provided resources to and assisted 189 evacuees.

On May 3, 2016, after strong effort, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation opened up a reception center for the evacuees involved in the Fort McMurray wildfire.  For Dylan Landstrom, the newly appointed Director of Emergency Management (DEM), opening up a reception center felt like quite a lot to handle at first:

“Overall the evacuation reception centre was an excellent experience and also great practice. On the morning that Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas had started evacuating, I had just been appointed the new Director of Emergency Management (DEM), so it was all new to me and I must say pretty nerve-racking as well. Thankfully, the former DEM was with me every step of the way. Also, I am very thankful for all the volunteers who gave their time, and for the generous donations we received at our centre. Even though the first few days were hectic, everything eventually fell into place and ran smoothly throughout the duration of the centre remaining open. Being a part of this effort definitely made me feel good knowing that our community had played a big role in helping the people in need.”

In the event of fire, or in any other times of hardship, it is in the nature of our community to lend a hand whether it be directly within the community, or offering support to other communities needing help or assistance. On the morning of May 3rd, after being notified of the mandatory evacuation, we held an emergency meeting and all departments within the Nation responded quickly and soon thereafter discussion and planning began.  During the planning and preparation anyone who was involved did their due diligence and very best in ensuring that the center was set up on time to receive evacuees. These departments included administration, health, education, public works, band gas bar, treatment center, recreation, campground, Chief and Council, along with the community elders and members who volunteered their time. As the days went by, we began receiving help from local businesses and departments from the town of Lac La Biche and its County, as well as other local nations and metis settlements.

Every individual who came to our center in need, seeking a place to sleep and/or looking for resources was accommodated. However, during this time, with the little space we had to offer, we struggled with sheltering the number of evacuees we received, the main reason being that there was not and still is not one main sleeping quarters. We were able to mitigate this by utilizing multiple spaces within the community:  the school gymnasium and both band halls.  We were also able to utilize a few family units at our treatment center that were not being used at the time of the evacuation. Finally, for some evacuees who were able to escape the wildfire with their motor homes, travel trailers, etc., we offered free camping at the Spruce Point Resort located within our Nation.

“I have also learned that it takes a great deal of organization, and communication is key.” – Dylan Landstrom, Director of Emergency Management

Overall, this event showed us that we have a high community response capacity.  This was proven by the response from all departments who immediately came together from the very beginning, ready to take action. The Beaver Lake Cree has learned a valuable lesson in community response and preparedness, especially regarding shelter, communication, and organization. We have recognized and flagged these as key areas that we need to work on and build capacity around so that if an event such as this ever occurred again we will be better prepared and equipped to handle such an occurrence. We also recognized the need to designate a dedicated emergency management communications team and a fixed volunteer schedule, as we had many volunteers step up when we first opened the centre offering to assist but we were not prepared to delegate tasks, and as time passed and volunteer numbers dwindled we faced volunteer burn out.

“Now that I have begun my training as the DEM, this should improve our response capacity, as well as other areas that were weak.” – Dylan Landstrom, Director of Emergency Management

The BLCN is a community dedicated to humanity, all living beings, and all that sustains life. In the face of adversity, we have maintained our strength as a nation and one that exercises self determination and principles based on community and helping one another. We are original stewards of this land and it is our responsibility to care for it and all of its inhabitants; we have always maintained such and we will continue to.

Bios:

img_3525Dylan Landstrom is the Director of Emergency Management (DEM) and the Traditional Land Use Research Assistant for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. He is a proud member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation where he also resides. Dylan graduated grade 12 in 2009 and in 2011 enrolled in the local college and began his post-secondary journey to become a Natural Resource Technician. Dylan enjoys outdoor activities that include camping, quading, and swimming and pretty much anything to do with the outdoors. Dylan has recently began exploring his Cree culture by attending ceremonies, harvests, and other community events with cultural components.

headshotCrystal Lameman is a mother of two and a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Treaty No. 6, where she is employed as the Treaty Coordinator and Communications Manager. Crystal resigned her position as the Tar Sands Program Coordinator for Sierra Club Canada and the Alberta Climate and Energy Campaigner for Sierra Club Prairie Chapter in June 2015 to work directly for her nation, after holding those positions for 3 years.  Crystal has experience working with organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network and the International Indian Treaty Council.

Crystal’s United Nations work involved participation at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  She was a participant at the Preparatory Conference for the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in Alta, Norway.  She was a participant at the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, France. And she most recently participated at the 15th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City, NY.

Crystal holds a 2 Year Social Work Diploma from Maskwacis Cultural College (2002), Bachelor of Arts and Sciences from Athabasca University (2010), and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Alberta (2012); but above all her continued education of her Indigenous ways of knowing and being as a guide to how she lives her life is her greatest achievement.