Indigenous communities neglected during Fort McMurray wildfire, report suggests

Indigenous communities were largely neglected during the Fort McMurray wildfire emergency response, a new study suggests.

'It was a major breakdown of communication'

The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 13, 2016. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Indigenous communities were largely neglected during the Fort McMurray wildfire emergency response, a new study suggests.

The study, which took two years to complete, concludes that First Nations and Métis communities were left out of many stages of the wildfire response. CBC News obtained an advance copy of the report. 

Indigenous groups from the Fort McMurray region commissioned the report and it was funded with a grant from the Canadian Red Cross.

The report, released Tuesday, blames different levels of government for a lack of leadership, lack of communication and instances of cultural insensitivity during the wildfire.

"It was a major breakdown of communication," said Timothy Clark, the author of the report and researcher with Willow Springs Strategic Solutions. "I would describe it as completely inadequate."

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire is considered Canada's costliest insured natural disaster; destroying more than 2,500 homes.

More than 80,000 people fled the community during the fire, many ending up in nearby Indigenous communities like Anzac and Fort McKay.

The province and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have already released three assessments that concluded the Fort McMurray wildfire response was characterized by poor co-ordination and a chaotic evacuation.

Both the province and the municipality have pledged to implement the recommendations arising form those reviews.

The new report shows, through a series of focus groups and one-on-one interviews, that Indigenous leaders and band managers were disconnected and kept in the dark throughout the wildfire response.

This disconnect, the report notes, is commonplace in day-to-day operations between governments and Indigenous communities, but intensified during the wildfire.

"The wildfire revealed the depth of this institutional disconnect, which manifested in low levels of preparedness, weak coordination and cooperation," the report found.

Mistrust and lack of sensitivity

The report found that some interactions between Indigenous communities, government officials and emergency volunteers were marked by a lack of sensitivity and fuelled an atmosphere of mistrust.

One example the report highlights is that some Indigenous evacuees didn't feel welcomed or complained they were stereotyped by staff at evacuation centres. 

An aerial view of Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alta., shows smoke from the wildfires taken from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter on May 5, 2016. (Master Cpl. VanPutten/Canadian Armed Forces/Reuters)

Indigenous communities such as Fort McKay, north of Fort McMurray, served as an evacuation point for thousands of residents.

These communities whose populations more than doubled overnight received little to no immediate help from the province or Ottawa to help cope.

"I think people don't realize that we have one store in Fort McKay and the whole store was cleaned out in hours," said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis. "All the resources were cleaned out. People were taking food out of their own fridges to cook for people.

"Fort McKay didn't receive any real support until a couple of days after."

At a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Fort McMurray, Brad Callihoo, CEO of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation said his community had to issue their own evacuation order, despite threats from the province not to do so.

"I got a phone call from the province saying that we couldn't evacuate because we didn't receive official word." said Brad Callihoo. "[We] were the boots on the ground and [we] knew what was happening."

Brad Callihoo is CEO of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation. (David Thurton/ CBC)

 Callihoo said if the First Nation didn't evacuate, assemble its own fire crews and spend $6 million to defend the reserve they would have lost their community.

Quintal said Indigenous communities also need to do their own part to make sure they're ready, but they need various levels of government to partner with them.

Watch the full news conference where Indigenous leaders criticize the governments's emergency management during the 2016 wildfire. Mobile users can watch HERE.

Among the recommendations highlighted in the report:

  • The development of individual disaster management plans for communities that clearly identify the role of the Indigenous organization and municipal, provincial and federal governments.
  • Hiring and training more Indigenous emergency management workers and providing cultural sensitivity training for all people involved in disaster preparedness.
  • Creating open and cultural sensitive evacuation centres for Indigenous residents.
  • Expanding disaster relief funding to include Métis communities. 

In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, Lauren Arscott, press secretary for Municipal Affairs, said the findings are being reviewed by Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson, Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan, and by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

The recommendations will be studied "to understand how we can work with First Nations and Mé​tis communities in Alberta to improve our disaster response system for Indigenous people," Arscott said.

"It's clear that Indigenous peoples faced unique challenges both during the disaster — and afterward in the recovery. Alberta learns from every disaster that we face, and this report is an important opportunity to learn how we can improve our emergency response system."

The province will encourage municipal and federal counterparts to look at the findings as well, Arscott added.

Wood Buffalo's mayor Don Scott said he welcomes the report, which is critical of his municipality.

"I think it is a really important perspective of the 2016 wildfire and the impact on our Indigenous and Métis communities," Scott said.  "And I see this report as a real opportunity for improvement."

Scott said the municipality is already developing emergency plans and improving communication with Indigenous communities, as the report recommends.

Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Martine Stevens said both ISC and Public Safety Canada are reviewing the report and they are "committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of First Nation communities."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.