It was May 8, 2016, and the Fort McMurray wildfire was in full blaze.
Municipal and provincial leaders had gathered to discuss a response when Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation walked in wanting to know how their plans would affect Indigenous communities.
“All these heads started looking at each other and they had no answers for me,” he recalls. “It was clearly evident they had no plans for emergency procedures for First Nations in the surrounding area.”
That’s also the main conclusion of a lengthy report by 11 Indigenous communities in and around Fort McMurray. It was funded by the Red Cross and is the result of two years of surveys, meetings and focus groups.
“You had this breakdown in understanding,” said Tim Clark, the consultant who wrote the report.
The Fort McMurray wildfire became one of Canada’s worst natural disasters.
More than 88,000 residents fled their homes and more than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed. The estimated cost was pegged at about $10 billion and nearly 6,000 square kilometres in northern Alberta were scorched.
There were no deaths directly caused by the fire, but the report suggests that wasn’t because things went smoothly.
Nobody knew who was in charge, it says. Between municipalities, the province and Ottawa, responsibility for Indigenous communities was up in the air.
There were few relationships and less trust between government and First Nations groups, says the report. Indigenous leaders weren’t included in the Regional Emergency Operations Centre.
“You had Fort McMurray First Nation, just east of Fort McMurray, and they didn’t even know there was an emergency operations centre,” Clark said. “(The municipality) did not reach out to First Nations because it assumed they were being dealt with by the federal government.”
Most residents from the nearby hamlet of Janvier left for safety in Lac La Biche, 175 kilometres away. But when a few Janvier kids acted up, everyone, including elders, was rousted and moved again – some back to Janvier, which was still under threat.
Re-entry after the fire was similarly tone-deaf, the report says.
Registration centres were held in schools, institutions many Indigenous people are reluctant to enter.
“The moment you opened up the Friendship Centre re-entry centre, it was immediately filled with people,” said Clark. “There were a lot of people who weren’t going to those (schools).”
There was also initial doubt about whether residents would be allowed to rebuild in the Waterways neighbourhood — one of the oldest parts of Fort McMurray and settled by Indigenous people generations ago.
“The municipality understood it in financial terms,” Clark said. “The Indigenous people understood it in more of a cultural, historical perspective.”
Governments also failed to consider the circumstances of Indigenous communities, he said. Many houses damaged in the fire started off in bad shape. Fewer Indigenous homeowners were insured.
About one-quarter of Indigenous people in the survey lost their homes – a far higher percentage than in Fort McMurray as a whole. About one-third of those who lost homes had no insurance.
It wasn’t until March 2017 – months into the recovery effort – that Indigenous representatives joined a recovery task force. Clark also found First Nations and the provincial agency managing federal relief funds worked poorly together. Metis communities weren’t eligible at all.
Clark writes that the Willow Lake Metis spent more than $100,000 supporting members during the wildfire. The Fort McMurray Metis spent their reserves to the point where they could not get a bank loan.
The survey found that 70 per cent of respondents would prefer disaster management services from Indigenous groups if there were a similar disaster.
And there will be a next time, said Clark.
“There are still a lot of areas in northeast Alberta that are at high risk for disaster events.
“We can’t just say we had a big wildfire so it won’t happen again. We need to start repairing these relationships now.”
Adams said it can’t happen soon enough.