'This is unacceptable': Wasagamack chief demands province declare state of emergency in Island Lake area

The chief of a Manitoba First Nation that was evacuated due to a wildfire says rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of infrastructure and help.

Thousands from Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nations forced from homes by fire

Chief Alex McDougall of Wasagamack First Nation speaks to reporters in Winnipeg, on Wednesday, Sept. 6. McDougall said the evacuation of his community last week would have been a lot easier if Wasagamack had an airport. (Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press)

The chief of a Manitoba First Nation that was evacuated due to a wildfire says rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of infrastructure and help.

Wasagamack First Nation Chief Alex McDougall is calling on the province to declare a state of emergency in the Island Lake area, where more than 4,200 people were forced from their homes by fire last week.

"I'd like to apologize to my members for my ignorance and belief that the governments would come and help on that first call. They didn't," McDougall told reporters on Wednesday.
Residents from Wasagamack First Nation were taken by boat to St. Theresa Point to escape nearby wildfires. (Facebook)

A full evacuation of Wasagamack — roughly 2,000 people — and partial evacuations of nearby Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nations were called on Aug. 29 after winds pushed the wildfire within a kilometre of Wasagamack.

That community has no airstrip, so residents were taken in small boats across the lake to St. Theresa Point. The effort continued well into the night.

McDougall and other Indigenous leaders called a news conference Wednesday to demand an airport for Wasagamack — something they said governments promised more than 50 years ago — and voice criticisms of how evacuations were handled by the federal and provincial governments.

"We want our people to be properly housed in hotels, not in soccer complexes or the [RBC] Convention Centre. It appears to me that the actions and inactions of the government — both federal and provincial — are dictated by policies and agreements between federal and provincial departments and service delivery organizations like Red Cross," McDougall said.

"This is unacceptable and to me, as money appears to be taking precedence over the lives of our people and their health and safety."

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government said emergency management services are delivered to First Nations by the Canadian Red Cross and the federal department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

"Throughout the efforts to evacuate and contain the wildfires, the Manitoba government has been the lead in fire suppression efforts," the spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News.

"The province also assisted in co-ordination of other government agencies through the provincial Emergency Measures Organization. Manitoba government officials worked diligently and collaboratively with INAC, Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Red Cross to safely evacuate the communities affected."

Two Hercules planes were deployed by the military to assist in evacuations on Aug. 30, but McDougall said that should have happened more quickly.

A spokesperson for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada told CBC News in an email the department commends Wasagamack's leadership for its work throughout the evacuation and said safety of the First Nation's members is top priority.

"The Government of Canada agrees that a trilateral process with the First Nation and the Province of Manitoba should be pursued, in order to better co-ordinate emergency situations, and are committed to working together to advance this process in partnership," the spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News.

Airstrips in the area are owned by the province, the spokesperson said.

"We are open to working with our First Nations partners and the province to discuss transportation infrastructure," she wrote in the email.

'They decided not to act'

McDougall credits his people with getting everyone out safely. ​One woman had a miscarriage during the trek and two evacuees in Brandon were hospitalized with pneumonia related to smoke inhalation, he said.

He said RCMP officers didn't assist with trips across the lake.

"I find it hard to accept that while they had the resources which would have aided us in our efforts to get our people to safety, they decided not to act," he said.

RCMP spokesperson Robert Cyrenne told CBC News that officers were in close contact with community leadership throughout the evacuation and were ready and able to provide any assistance required.

"During the evacuation, RCMP officers from the Island Lake Detachment spent over 10 hours going door to door in Wasagamack to ensure all community members were notified of the evacuation and had the ability to leave," Cyrenne wrote in an email.

"This work was being done as the fire was encroaching on the community."

Once the houses were cleared, RCMP officers returned the next day to check on community members who stayed to assist fire crews and ensure houses were secure, as well as feed dogs left behind, he added.

'I want that state of emergency declared': Klassen

McDougall said he'd be meeting with federal officials on Wednesday, demanding air- and water-quality testing in his community before residents return, and requesting more help with the journey home.

Larger boats and lifejackets would make the return safer, he said.

"We're only going to go as far as the airport and then the government essentially washes their hands of us there and says, 'OK, you're home.' But actually we're not home, we're only at the airport. We have one more leg to go before we're at home," he said.

"What is the government planning to do?"
Liberal MLA Judy Klassen called on Premier Brian Pallister to declare a state of emergency. (CBC)

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen (Kewatinook) said she'll speak to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. She echoed McDougall's call on Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister to declare a state of emergency.

"I want that state of emergency declared. I know it has to come from you. You can't say, 'Go talk your federal cousins,'" she said.

The provincial spokesperson said in his email that emergency responses involving First Nation communities, "such as evacuations and other measures," are a joint decision between First Nations leadership and the federal government.

"A state of emergency is used principally as a tool to allow an authority the ability to take certain actions and does not assure access to further resources," the spokesperson wrote.

"Most often, a state of emergency is declared in order to declare mandatory evacuations or to restrict the freedom of movement in an area as required."

With files from The Canadian Press