Saskatchewan First Nation sets up 'Rez Cross' wildfire evacuation centre
Beardy's & Okemasis wants to help some of the thousands forced out of forest fire zone
A First Nations reserve in the middle of Saskatchewan has opened its own wildfire evacuation centre, one that's not being run by the Red Cross.
Over the past three weeks, thousands of evacuees, many of them aboriginal people, have been forced to leave their homes in northern communities.
Most of them have been staying at Red Cross emergency shelters in Regina, Saskatoon, and Prince Albert.
Hundreds from the La Ronge area have also been bused to Cold Lake, Alta., which is about 650 kilometres to the west.
Now, there's an evacuation centre open on Beardy's & Okemasis First Nation, called the 'Rez Cross'.
The band has set up their shelter at the Beardy's Memorial Arena off Highway 11, about eight kilometres west of Duck Lake, Sask. They've been certified by the Prince Albert Grand Council to function as an official evacuation centre.
"It's great that we're able to provide that service and ensure that people can stay together," said band councilor Kevin Seesequasis.
"We've got a lot of people from Hall Lake, from La Ronge, from Grandmother's Bay. So, it's nice that we can keep families together and offer the type of hospitality that they're used to."
Seesequasis said about 63 people are staying at the arena, but there is enough room for 300. They're expecting more people to come later this afternoon. If capacity is reached, they'll find alternatives in the area for further accommodations.
Operation Pitch In
"Our evacuation centre is fully operational," Seesequasis said in a video posted to the band's Facebook page.
"We're offering food, we're offering mental health supports, we've got clothing — anything anybody needs to be comfortable, we're offering it."
Seesequasis said people who come to the Beardy's centre should register with the Red Cross first.
Beardy's program, called "Operation Pitch In", is accepting donations and volunteers who can cook, work security, and do other chores.
The band has been flooded with messages from people saying how pleased they are to see Beardy's & Okemasis taking this kind of initiative.
"My heart is so overwhelmed with pride," Jo Lyn See wrote in a Facebook message. "Love my home Beardy's & Okemasis and the people there. You will all be truly blessed."
Meanwhile, another First Nations leader, Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson, said she was contacted by the Red Cross and told they are centralizing their resources in the three largest Saskatchewan cities.
"They will not be moving anyone to the Beardy's and Okemasis shelter. So if people do want to move there, they will have to do this at their own expense and responsibility," Cook-Searson said in a Facebook post.
More than 100 forest fires are burning in Saskatchewan's north.
In addition to the more than 7,000 people staying in shelters, it's believed there are thousands more who have left the wildfire zones on their own and are staying with family and friends.
There's no word yet on when all the evacuees will be able to return to their homes
A home away from home
Clarence Morin has been staying at 'Rez Cross' for the past four days.
Since being evacuated from their home in Hall Lake, Morin and his family are trying their best to stay positive about the possible damages.
"They've actually made us feel at home here," said Morin.
Morin and his family originally took refuge at another evacuation site before coming to the arena.
"Other places you're urged to get up around seven or eight in the morning. But here, they let you sleep in anytime you want," said Morin. "They don't tell us what to do."
The evacuees at the site are offered various recreational activities to get their minds off of the northern fires. This includes horse-riding, hunting and cultural events such as powwows. People also have access to mental health counsellors.
Since opening their door on Saturday, the centre has been receiving donations from all over the province. People have been sending in books, toys, clothes and toiletries. Some have even gone as far as donating entire beds to make the evacuees feel more at home.
On Tuesday, Morin found a nice surprise when reaching into the pocket of a pair of donated pants a letter from the donor.
"It honestly made me feel great because somebody who donates a piece of clothing would just leave it there and say, 'oh this is just for anybody'. But this one person wants to meet whoever got that clothing," said Morin.
Morin has reached out to the donor and plans to meet him in the near future.