How Indigenous services leaders are teaching youth on reserves to help their communities cope with disasters

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A group of mentors and mentees stand together at the Preparing Our Home gathering in Osoyoos, B.C., on Oct. 18, 2022. The program approaches emergency preparedness from Indigenous services perspectives, accounting for the unique needs of First Nations communities. (Devin Naveau)

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In the face of Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, a national program that teaches Indigenous youth to become emergency preparedness leaders is more important than ever, say its founders. 

The Preparing Our Home program aims to improve disaster management on reserve by sharing practices geared towards Indigenous services communities – communities that are increasingly and disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. 

“With Preparing Our Home, there’s been a real awareness and education [about] disasters and evacuations, how to work with your community when those incidents happen,” program co-founder and mentor Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro told CBC’s What On Earth
As part of the program, Yellow Old Woman-Munro shares lessons learned during the climate-linked disaster that struck her own nation: the 2013 flood that hit the Siksika Nation and other parts of southern Alberta. 

In its aftermath, Yellow Old Woman-Munro developed the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre to support evacuees spread out around the large reserve. 

Evacuees were usually expected to travel to a central location for support, but Yellow Old Woman-Munro said she knew her community needed a different approach. She put together a team of health-care workers and youth to visit evacuees in the temporary sites where they were living instead.

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Yellow Old Woman-Munro, centre, stands with members of the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre, a team created to assist evacuees from the flood that struck the Siksika Nation in Alberta in 2013. (Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre)

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“For evacuees, to travel was an issue,” Yellow Old Woman-Munro said. “So it was easier for us … to go out and meet with the evacuees, find out what they needed, bring food, bring water, blankets, tents to them.” 

The Preparing Our Home Program, which has been running for seven years, shares these kinds of community-focused practices with Indigenous youth across Canada.

Program co-founder and director Lilia Yumagulova said conventional disaster response is inappropriate for many living on reserve. For example, being taken on a bus and housed in evacuation centres, such as gymnasiums with rows of cots and bright lights, can be a “traumatic triggering event,” for residential school survivors, she said. 

“There is a lot … that needs to be changed to make it much more culturally safe,” she said.

When it comes to emergency preparedness, Yumagulova said, conventional messaging is aimed at middle class, able-bodied people who can afford an emergency preparedness kit and a vehicle. 

“There is this silent majority that actually falls outside of those spaces and that’s where a lot of preparedness efforts should be directed,” she said.

Preparing Our Home holds an annual gathering in Osoyoos, B.C. in the fall, during which youth learn from elders and emergency management professionals. 

“We really begin with understanding why communities are at such a disproportionate amount of risk,” said Yumagulova. “So you begin with the Indian Act and the forced displacement that many communities went through.”

Then, she said, they explore solutions from Indigenous services communities across the country. 

“The youth say that it’s just amazing to know that you’re not alone facing these issues,” she said. 

Michelle Vandevord, a Muskoday First Nation firefighter and associate director for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management, is a mentor with the program. She teaches youth about wildfire management and Indigenous-led evacuation practices. 

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Michelle Vandevord, a Muskoday First Nation firefighter and associate director for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management, is a mentor with the Preparing Our Home program. (Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada)

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One example: a cultural camp held in Prince Albert, Sask., in May for evacuees from the fire that threatened the community at Deschambault Lake in the province’s northeast.

“When you think about our First Nation people going to hotels and the foods that are being served, it’s not something that people are used to,” Vandevord said. 

Fast food can have health impacts for people from remote communities, especially diabetics, she added.

The cultural camp in Prince Albert, she said, served fish, caribou, and moose, offering evacuees a familiar meal of traditional foods. 

“[It was] very First Nations-led, solving a problem that we see on the ground,” Vandevord said. 

Such practices are vital for community wellbeing during disasters, say Preparing Our Home mentors. 

The goal of the annual gathering is for youth to return to their communities and teach others what they’ve learned about emergency preparedness. 

The event can also lead to careers in emergency management for some of the young participants.

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Brent Boissoneau, 24, has attended the Preparing Our Home gathering and was hired as the emergency management co-ordinator for his community, Mattagmi First Nation in Ontario, earlier this year. (Preparing Our Home)

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Brent Boissoneau, 24, is one of them. He attended the gathering several years ago and was hired as the emergency management co-ordinator for his community, Mattagami First Nation in Ontario, earlier this year. It’s a federally funded role that many, including Canada’s Auditor General, say is critical for Indigenous services communities during disasters. 

“You learn so much from other people that are there,” Boissoneau said of the gathering. “And building that relationship to see what [disaster management strategies] can we take from them and what can we give to them as well?”

A 2022 Auditor General’s report said the federal government is failing to provide the support First Nations need to manage emergencies. The report says many problems were identified a decade ago, but Indigenous Services Canada has not solved them. 

Lilia Yumagulova said there has been some progress. 

“Indigenous peoples within these colonial structures … are making [an] enormous difference in moving these files forward,” she said. “Unfortunately there has been report after report after report and the change is not fast enough.”

The report finds that Indigenous Services Canada’s actions are more reactive than preventative. The department spends 3.5 times more on disaster response and recovery than on emergency prevention and preparedness. 

Preparing Our Home is mainly funded through a grant from Indigenous Services Canada, but the Auditor General says the federal government needs to do more to fund emergency preparedness, including collaborating with First Nations to determine how many more emergency management co-ordinators are needed in First Nations around the country and funding them. 

In an emailed statement, Indigenous Services Canada said it has made progress on all of the recommendations in the Auditor General’s 2022 report. The department said it’s working with First Nations partners to improve emergency management services, including “supporting new First Nations-led service delivery models that reflect community needs and First Nations’ inherent right to self-determination.” 

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When wildfires spread they can have devastating impacts — forcing people to leave their homes and belongings — and new research says the effects may be even greater for Indigenous services communities.

The study, published in the February 2019 volume of the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, looks at how members of the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation in northwestern Ontario — where over 1,000 people were living — responded to a mandatory wildfire evacuation in June 2011.

The fire was about 300 square kilometres in size and 15 kilometres away when a mandatory evacuation was called for the First Nation. Residents were relocated over three days to the communities of Sioux Lookout, located 230 kilometres away, Ignace, 236 kilometres away, and Geraldton, 763 kilometres away.

Lead author Tara McGee, who’s a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, interviewed 28 residents about their evacuation experiences, many of whom said they did not want to leave the community.

Evacuees were worried about their house pets and their possessions, some felt quite homesick over the evacuation period,” she said.

“There was also a strong desire of people to want to stay home within [Mishkeegogamang] and within the traditional territory to be able to carry out their usual activities.”

The study found that for Indigenous people, attachments to place may be stronger and the freedom to carry out activities like hunting and fishing may be more important.

The desire to retain control may also be stronger for Indigenous people, the study said, due in part to the colonial legacy of government programs in Canada.

“Within an evacuation, often it’s RCMP who would go to the door to tell people to leave, so one of the residents essentially said that that seemed like it would be similar to the residential school experience,” said McGee.   

There were a number of other negative impacts on evacuees, McGee said, including extended families being split up while others were crowded in hotel rooms. McGee said this was especially stressful as families in the Indigenous services community play a key role in providing social support.

Some people also found that a few individuals in the three communities where evacuees were sent made racist comments that made them feel unwelcome,” she added. 

Because the power went out in the First Nation, McGee said many residents also lost food that was being stored in refrigerators and freezers,

“For people in northern communities, that takes a lot of time and money to replace that lost food.”

Indigenous services communities are at high risk for wildfires in Canada. A recent analysis by the Canadian Forest Service indicates that 60 per cent of First Nation reserves in Canada are located within or intersect with wildland and urban development — high risk areas for wildfire. Research also suggests that the number of wildfires will increase over the next decade.

Indigenous Canadians are also disproportionately affected by respiratory diseases, including asthma, which are exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

McGee said when it comes to the evacuation of Indigenous communities, a different approach should be taken. She recommends that emergency managers consider ways to allow people to stay with their traditional territory when possible or relocate them to nearby Indigenous communities that can provide culturally appropriate accommodations and support.

That’s something the Northwest Territories government said it prioritizes when it comes to emergency planning.

Ivan Russell, manager of emergency measures with the territorial government,  said during evacuations they try and keep people within familiar cultural surroundings.

Our protocol really for community evacuations is to try to keep [people] within their own region,” he said. “So if we have to evacuate a community we’ll try to evacuate them to the regional centre which is very familiar culturally, as well they share a lot of family ties.” 

Russell noted they consider other factors like the risk to communities and the ability of host communities to provide supports to evacuees.

In the past five years there have been 11 partial or full evacuations of communities in the Northwest Territories and four of remote cabin areas.

The territory updated its emergency plan in December 2018, which includes evacuation guidelines. It states that communities are responsible for developing and implementing emergency plans, including evacuation plans and the territorial government will provide assistance as needed.

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