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Plans still being drawn up to protect Kashechewan from spring flood and COVID-19

Hundreds of people in Kashechewan are heading into the wilderness to avoid spring flooding in the James Bay community. The annual evacuation of the First Nation has been called off, with fears of COVID-19 in the cities to the south. But plans are still in the works, as ice on the river starts to melt.

There are no COVID cases so far in Kashechewan or any other James Bay communities

Ice on the Albany River creeps up the dike meant to protect Kashechewan from flooding in 2019. This spring, some of the 2,000 people in the James Bay community may have to stay put and face flood waters. (Submitted by Leo Friday )

Hundreds of people in Kashechewan are heading into the wilderness to avoid spring flooding in the James Bay community.

The annual evacuation of the First Nation— that sees all 2,000 people flown out to wait out the melt in hotel rooms in places like Kapuskasing and Timmins— has been called off, with fears of COVID-19 in the cities to the south.

But plans are still in the works, as ice on the river starts to breaks up.

Chief Leo Friday says about 1,000 people have been supplied with camping equipment to allow them to go out on the land, thanks to $2.12 million in emergency funding from the federal government. A family of five or more received $2,000, while a single person was allotted $750.

"We have a little bit of funding, but not enough. There's still people that want to go out," says Friday.

He is hoping to get more funding to allow others to go out camping, at a time when Cree traditionally are out in the bush hunting geese, something people in Kashechewan haven't done as much for the past decade because the geese arrive at the same time as floodwaters.

Friday says he's pleased this gives his people a chance to reconnect with their culture and he isn't too worried about people out on the land for the first time.

"Not really," he says.

"They're really enjoying going out. Some who have never gone out, want to go too."

Kashechewan First Nation says about 1,000 people are heading out on the land to live in tents for about a month while the community is at risk of flooding. (Erik White/CBC )

There had been talk of setting up a tent city for all of Kashechewan in the outskirts of a nearby town like Kapuskasing or Smooth Rock Falls, or on the spot 30 km to the south known as Site 5 where a new community is to be built.

But Friday says there is no longer time to pull those plans together.

He says for elders and others who aren't physically able to go camping, there is a search on for a facility such as a university campus where they could be brought if floodwaters come into Kashechewan.

Many in Kashechewan are looking forward to heading out on the land during break-up, a spring ritual that's fallen by the wayside when the community is evacuated every spring. (Erik White/CBC )

Friday says spring break-up is delayed by a few weeks in Ontario's far north because it's still "January" weather in late April, which should give them enough time to make a plan that keeps everyone safe.

"I believe it will. But I don't know what's going to happen," he says.

"Warmer days gets around, in no time there's going to be lots of water."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says unfortunately this kind of complex problem is becoming the "new normal" for many First Nations. 

"There's absolutely nothing being ruled out. This is not an issue of financial resources or physical resources, it's about making sure people stay safe," he says. 

"Whatever we need to do, we're going to be there."

Canada's Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says all options for keeping people in Kashechewan safe from flooding and the coronavirus are on the table, regardless of cost. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The federal government has been promising to relocate Kashechewan for some 15 years now and Chief Friday is hoping the pandemic will make those plans come together faster.

"After this is over and done, maybe we can somehow speed up the process to build something in the new site, where we want to be every spring and where people can find peace and calm during the break-up season," he says.

Miller says the Trudeau Liberals remain committed to moving Kashechewan, but right now his focus is elsewhere. 

"Being in the midst of a global pandemic, my ability to examine 'what ifs'  is very limited," he says. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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