Impact of wildfire on Fort McMurray Indigenous communities to be studied

The Red Cross is studying the impact of May's wildfire on Fort McMurray's Indigenous people already struggling with poverty, addiction, and trauma from the legacy of residential school abuse.

‘People have deep-seated issues they need to address'

Brian Fayant, vice-president of Fort McMurray’s Nistawoyou Friendship Centre, says the wildfire exacerbated issues faced by First Nations and Métis people. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

The Red Cross is funding a study into the impact of May's wildfire on Fort McMurray's Indigenous communities.

The wildfire has made life more difficult for people already struggling with poverty, addiction, and trauma from the legacy of residential school abuse, say First Nations and Métis leaders.

"This was the straw that broke the camel's back," Brian Fayant, vice-president of the Fort McMurray's Nistawoyou Friendship Centre said. "People have deep-seated issues they need to address."

People are dealing with elevated stress, homes that have been destroyed, and trap lines that disappeared along with the forest, he said.

The $500,000 study will examine a wide range of topics including the need for targeted mental health services, the impact of the fire on businesses, hunting and trapping, and harvesting of traditional food sources.

"Some of the trappers have lost their cabins. The other thing is what happened to the animals and the berry patches where they would have harvested for the summer and the fall," Fayant said.

Indigenous groups support study

The project is overseen by the Athabasca Tribal Council and its partners. In total, 12 Indigenous communities and organizations are supporting the study. Individual community reports will be produced along with one regional study.

Mikisew Cree First Nation elder Hilda Lepine hopes the study identifies the needs of people like her who lost their homes in the fire and didn't have any insurance.
Mikisew Cree First Nation elder Hilda Lepine lost her home in May's wildfire and is without insurance. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

"I was so proud of my home. It was something that I worked for and finally had something to call my own."

Lepine said she doesn't just need help rebuilding, but replacing equipment her family used to gather traditional food.

"My son lost all his hunting gear. He's the one that provided me with the traditional food."

The Fort McMurray Métis local office lost its building in the May wildfire along with documents and membership database.

"The organization suffered a huge loss because this was a meeting place. A lot of Métis gatherings happened on this land," said Dan Stuckless, Fort McMurray Métis general manager.

The study will also help Indigenous groups assemble memberships lists that some lost and others didn't have before the fire.