Saturday, October 16

“I came home to fight for my land”: First Nations fight Canada fire that displaced them | Forest fires


When Tyler Vander Griend saw dense black smoke rising over the western Canadian town of Lytton, his first instinct was to run to hell.

But the flames were moving too fast, and Vander Griend, a lanky young man from nearby Kanaka Bar First Nation, was forced to watch helplessly as the fire consumed the community.

“You know how hard it hurts to sit there and watch your own hometown burn and you just want to save it?” he said.

Lytton was almost completely destroyed, as were the surrounding houses. A month later, the fire is still burning, a 42,000 hectare inferno fueled by hot, dry conditions. But now Vander Griend and other indigenous evacuees have received training and are fighting the same fire.

First Nations communities in British Columbia, often in rural and forested areas, are on the front lines of Canada’s changing climate. With nearly 250 wildfires burning in the region and provincial crews understaffed, indigenous fire crews play an increasingly critical role in keeping fires at bay. And as more come to the fore, First Nations leaders want to have more voice in how forests are managed and burned.

Neskonlith First Nation's Tyrone Saul studies a tree during his Dangerous Trees Assessor certification at Tsútswecw Provincial Park, as nearly 300 wildfires are burning in the province.

Indigenous peoples across the continent have long known that small, deliberate fires lit during the spring, known as prescribed burns, can prevent larger fires in the summer months. Before they were forcibly moved from their traditional territory to reserves in the late 19th century, indigenous communities used the fires to help clear the accumulation of flammable wood, encourage the growth of medicinal plants, and create protective barriers around their communities.

“If you listen to our elders, they say if we take care of the earth, it will take care of us,” said Harry Spahan, a fire manager for the Nlaka’pamx Nation who has worked with the British Columbia wildlife service for more than 40 years. . years.

Indigenous peoples recognized that diverse forests, including a mix of cedar, fir, and Douglas fir, burn differently than those dominated by a single species. Trees like mountain ash, which burn slowly, can prevent fires from moving too quickly and aggressively. But the large lodgepole pine plantations favored by the forestry industry are far more vulnerable to larger and more devastating fires.

“I remember when I was young and the old men would burn fields down to the tree line so if there was a forest fire, he would stay there and never go down to the villages,” said Mojo Thomas, an evacuee from the Skeetchestn Indian Band who was camped out in Los Angeles. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation grounds. “Today, we don’t do that. So that’s why a fire could sweep through that mountain and hit us here, and there would be no way to stop it. “

A bad summer of fires has prompted calls from indigenous groups to modernize policies around prescribed burns and to give First Nations more power to carry out those burns on their own territory and in neighboring Crown lands.

Firefighters, many of them from the First Nation from surrounding communities, take their written exam for the Dangerous Tree Assessor certification.

  • Firefighters, many of them First Nations members from the surrounding communities, take their written exam for the Dangerous Trees Assessor certification.

Josh Machelle and Jaguar Machelle are part of a team of firefighters evacuated from their Lytton homes, and now live in a camp set up on the grounds of tk'emlúps te Secwepemc pow-wow.  Jaguar stayed in his community to work security and feed the neighborhood animals while firefighters worked to control the blaze that swept through the city.
Curtis Alec, left, an 11-year veteran of wildland firefighting, was evacuated from his home and then headed to start the firefighting.

  • Josh and Jaguar Machelle are part of a team of firefighters evacuated from their Lytton homes, and now live in a camp set up on the grounds of Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc pow-wow. Right: Curtis Alec, left, an 11-year veteran of wildfire fighting, was evacuated from his home and then headed off to start the firefighting.

From left, Bryden Williams and his partner Ryan Webster, along with brothers Wade, Wayne, and Mathew Webster are photographed after their firefighting shift on the grounds of the Tk'emlups pow-wow.

  • From left to right, Bryden Williams and his partner Ryan Webster, along with the Wade brothers, Wayne and Mathew Webster, after their turn of firefighting on the Tk’emlúps powwow grounds.

“The current policies have really held back our communities and our people,” Spahan said. “But there are several nations that are really trying to work with the provincial and federal governments to build something that is better in the future,” he said.

Four years ago, a suggested report for British Columbia to “increase the use of traditional and prescribed burning” in partnership with First Nations, including modifying existing rules and regulations, which many indigenous leaders say causes bureaucratic delays and headaches.

The province says it supports “traditional and cultural burning” and has “assisted many First Nations throughout the province in this practice,” but adds that any controlled burning must comply with pre-existing environmental regulations.

A firefighter walks under a lamppost as the Embleton Mountain wildfire rages down the mountain towards the edge of the village of Whitecroft, BC

Fighting indigenous fires has also been hampered by another painful chapter in Canada’s recent past: the notorious residential schools for indigenous children, which were explicitly established to disrupt the teaching of ancestral customs and knowledge.

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Canadian residential schools

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Canadian residential schools

Over 100 years, more than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.

They were given new names, forcibly converted to Christianity, and prohibited from speaking their native languages. Thousands died of disease, neglect, and suicide; many were never returned to their families.

The last residential school closed in 1996.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, while others were run by the United, Anglican and Presbyterian Church of Canada, which is today the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In 2015, a historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded that the residential school system amounted to a policy of cultural genocide.

Survivors’ testimony made it clear that sexual, emotional and physical abuse was rife in schools. And the trauma suffered by students was often passed on to younger generations, a reality magnified by the systematic inequalities that persist across the country.

Dozens of First Nations do not have access to clean water and racism against indigenous peoples is rampant in the healthcare system. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in federal prisons, and Indigenous women are murdered at a much higher rate than other groups.

Commissioners identified 20 unmarked graves in former residential schools, but also cautioned that no more unidentified graves had yet been found across the country.

Photo: Saskatchewan Provincial Archives / SASKATCHE PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES

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“These residential schools were a shock to our culture,” Thomas said. “And we are the product of that. Because we don’t know the language. We can’t talk to each other. We do not know the basic rituals that our people once had, learning to live each of the seasons ”.

The Lytton fire, which displaced more than 1,000 people from surrounding communities, is now more than a month old. People who had to flee their homes have camped in Kamloops, hoping to return.

Those who joined the fire crews recently had their chance: spending days fighting the flames in the smoky haze and sweltering heat.

“I came home to fight for my land. I wanted to do it on my own turf, ”said Josh Machelle, the crew leader.

Mojo with his children from left, Lila Rose Zabotel, Joe Zabotel-Gott, Moses Zabotel-Gott and their dogs Tanto, right, and Zhooktoot.

  • As the Sparks Lake wildfire threatened homes and properties in the Skeetchestn Indian Band, Mojo Thomas loaded his truck with his three children and two dogs to seek shelter on the grounds of the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc powwow in Kamloops, British Columbia. Mojo with his children from left, Lila Rose Zabotel, Joe Zabotel-Gott, Moses Zabotel-Gott and their dogs Tanto, right, and Zhooktoot.

Mojo Thomas displays his counter mask, one of the ceremonial items he was able to pack before being forced to flee the Sparks Lake wildfire.
Mojo thomas

  • Thomas is seen here in his counter mask, one of the ceremonial items he was able to pack; and with his dogs Zhooktoot, left, and Tanto.

Despite the growing number of First Nations youth eager to fight fires, they often do so as contractors, a separate function from official provincial fire teams, with fewer resources and less voice over how fires are fought.

The First Nations Emergency Services Society of British Columbia has been pushing for years for more indigenous firefighters, as well as funding to train local volunteers, and for communities to have more power to proactively respond to firefighters. forest fires.

Machelle, who has been fighting fires for the past 15 years, said this summer has been the worst she has ever experienced.

“This is the most painful year. I lost my town. I lost my community. Lytton will never be the same again, ”he said. “We are just trying to protect each other because those are our people. We feel what other communities are facing, but we prefer to be at home, in our lands and our territory, fighting against this. “


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