Manitoba

Chemawawin Cree Nation students get free grad garb after wildfire evacuation

Nineteen Grade 12 students from Chemawawin Cree Nation will get a second crack at graduation in Winnipeg after ceremonies were cut short last week when a forest fire forced people to leave the community at short notice.

Winnipeg organizations donate money, graduation dresses and tuxedos after grad ceremony cut short

Le Chateau and Mallabar Apparels have donated grad dresses and tuxedos to students from Chemawawin Cree Nation after they were forced to cut graduation celebrations short due to a wildfire in the community. (CBC)

Nineteen Grade 12 students from Chemawawin Cree Nation will get a second crack at graduation in Winnipeg after ceremonies were cut short last week when a forest fire forced people to leave the community at short notice.

About 2,000 people people fled the community "without their papers," without some of the most basic possessions, on June 23 after the province declared a state of emergency, Chemawawin School vice-principal Sandra Lavallee said.

"My days are just mixed up," she said. "It was such a rushed event that we didn't have time to plan to bring clothes. We had to get people out."

The evacuation order interrupted a graduation ceremony that was going on in a big tent at the local school.

"We were kind of laughing about it, you know, 'There's a big fire out there and we're having this ceremony.' We didn't know the extent of the fire, how serious it was at the time, while we were preparing for our graduation ceremony," Lavallee, who helped organized the event, said Monday.
This forest fire was burning about half a kilometre away from Easterville and the Chemawawin Cree Nation in central Manitoba as of Thursday afternoon. (Beverley George/Facebook)

Lavallee said she could tell the air quality was worsening before she received a text from the school principal telling her the ceremony had to be cancelled.

'It was really heartbreaking'

"I kind of ignored it because we wanted to finish the ceremony for our graduates," Lavallee said. "Once people heard about the graduation ceremony being cut without much notice, our grads were very emotional.... It was really heartbreaking."

Two locals then came by the tent and explained to everyone that it was time to go.
Sandra Lavallee said people from Chemawawin Cree Nation were overwhelmed by support they received in Winnipeg. (CBC)

"We had to shoo everyone out, we had to give the diplomas in a hasty manner," Lavallee said. "Our graduates were kind of looking around not really knowing what was fully taking place."

'Support has been overwhelming'

Word spread quickly that evacuees were sent to Winnipeg to wait out the fire.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Canadian Red Cross sprung into action and helped get everyone settled, Lavallee said. But the grads in particular were given special attention.

With just two days to plan, MKO, AMC, the Red Cross and others have helped put together another graduation ceremony for the students in Winnipeg, with Le Chateau and Mallabar Apparels providing grads with tuxes and dresses, free of charge. Corsages are also being donated.

Lavallee took some of the students to Le Chateau on Ellice Avenue Monday afternoon to pick out dresses.

Nineteen Grade 12 students from Chemawawin Cree Nation will get a second crack at graduation in Winnipeg after ceremonies were cut short last week when a forest fire forced people to leave the community. 1:18

"The support has been overwhelming," Lavallee said. "I can't get over the fact that people have noticed our dilemma and are willing to help our students get the proper graduation ceremony."

Christina Norris Salon has volunteered to do hair and makeup for the grads,

An emotional Amber Gott said getting a second chance to have a graduation ceremony in Winnipeg means a lot to her.

Gott said the grads will get a chance to ride in a limo Tuesday — something she has never done before.
Amber Gott is grateful she and her fellow graduates will get another chance to celebrate their academic accomplishments. (CBC)

"The generosity of so many people that we were actually able to make this happen for us after being evacuated so suddenly … it's a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am glad that I get to experience it to the fullest."

Chemawawin Chief Clarence Easter announced Sunday night that officials with the province told him the fire no longer poses a threat to the community. The evacuation order was expected to be lifted Monday.

Chemawawin Cree Nation is located in Easterville, Man., about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.