Manitoba

'Lives cost so much': Wasagamack elder says evacuated community needs an airport

For the people of Wasagamack, a remote northern Manitoba community evacuated because of encroaching fires, the only way out is by boat.

Hundreds still waiting for flights to Winnipeg a day after remote Manitoba community was evacuated

Evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation line up at an airport in the nearby community of St. Theresa Point in order to catch a plane out to safety. (Mark Wood Ganabook)

For the people of Wasagamack, a remote northern Manitoba First Nation evacuated this week because of encroaching fires, there is only way out — and that is by boat.

The First Nation, 470 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has a population of about 2,000 but doesn't have an airport. Residents must take a 20-minute boat ride through choppy waters to get to the nearby community of St. Theresa Point to catch a plane.

"It's been a long time that we've been asking for an airport, for our community safety," said Wasagamack elder Solomon Wood.

There is no airport in Wasagamack, so evacuees from the remote Manitoba community have to travel by boat ride through the choppy waters of Island Lake to the nearby community of St. Theresa Point to catch a flight to safety. (Mark Wood Ganabook)

Wood, 88, suffers from a lung condition and was among the first evacuees from Wasagamack to arrive in Winnipeg Tuesday evening after a nearby forest fire forced his entire community to flee. 

Wood was having trouble breathing so his daughter, Arlene Knott, grabbed his medication and the two rushed out of their home with just the clothes on their backs.

"We didn't take nothing, we just wanted to take the meds," said Knott.

"We didn't have much time. I knew I had to get him to the nursing station right away, so once our ride came in … they put us in the boat right away."

Arlene Knott and her father, Solomon Wood, arrived in Winnipeg Tuesday evening, hours after learning their community of Wasagamack was being evacuated because of a nearby forest fire. (CBC)

Knott said her father continued to struggle on the plane but had left his medication in his checked bag. She said luckily, there were other passengers on the plane with similar medical conditions who were able to help.

"Lots of people carried those [medications] and we borrowed them, and it helped him in the plane, and the stewardess put oxygen on him and it helped calm him down. He couldn't breathe on the plane," said Knott.

Wood was rushed to hospital in Winnipeg, treated and released. He and his daughter are now in a St. James hotel but say this forest fire is exactly why Wasagamack needs an airport of its own.

"He's saying that it would cost lives if we didn't have an airport [during] a forest fire,"  Knott translated for her father, who speaks Oji-Cree. "Lives cost so much and it would mean so much."

Airport discussed since 1998

"Our community is very remote we are the only people around Island Lake that don't have an airport where planes can land," said Wood.

Smoke from northern Manitoba forest fires continues to threaten Wasagamack First Nation, about 470 kilometres north of Winnipeg. (Mark Wood Ganabook)
Three communities are located on Island Lake — Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point. There are currently airports in St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nations, but not in Wasagamack.

Building an airport in Wasagamack is an idea the province has been considering for nearly two decades.

A 1998 provincial airports safety working group agreed there was a need for a new airport between Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point. It's not clear why it was never built.

The evacuations from the three communities started on Tuesday, but as of Wednesday evening, hundreds of people were still waiting at the airport in St. Theresa Point for a flight to Winnipeg.

On Wednesday, the Department of National Defence said it will send military planes to help residents get out of the evacuated First Nations.

Wood said if he were in better health, he would have stayed in his community until every person made it out safely, but all he can do now is hope and pray for his people.

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: caroline.barghout@cbc.ca

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