There is work to do for evacuating Indigenous communities.
On Wednesday, Leo de Ruiter, an emergency management expert, presented a report on the 2023 evacuations and what is needed to improve those operations at the Mushkegowuk Emergency Response Summit.
The need for more mental health support topped the list of the assembled First Nations leadership and emergency workers.
The report includes the evacuations of Kashechewan First Nation, Fort Albany First Nation, and Taykwa Tagamou Nation in 2023.
In April, due to floods, Kashechawan First Nation members evacuated to Timmins, Cochrane, and Kapuskasing, and Fort Albany members were evacuated to Missisauga before moving to Niagara Falls.
In June, Fort Albany First Nation members were evacuated again to Kapiskasing, Val Rita, and Timmins due to wildfires that threatened the community.
Taykwa Tagamou Nation was also evacuated due to wildfires and smoke, moving members to Windsor.
The importance of addressing mental health issues before, during and after the event was highlighted by all the communities involved in this week's session.
“Evacuations, while crucial for physical safety, can take a toll on mental and emotional health,” said de Ruiter during his presentation. “Recognizing this ensures a comprehensive approach for community care.”
The report also recommends that post-evacuation mental health supports be available after the evacuation.
“This reinforces the idea of not just surviving an emergency but thriving beyond it,” said De Ruiter.
Deputy Grand Chief North Amos Wesley said it’s essential to have support from the community and other communities during emergencies.
“I’m hoping every community has a plan in place for emergency preparedness because of all the climate change going on, especially with fires and floods,” he said. “It’s all about planning and having a vision for all communities.”
Wesley is from Kashechewan First Nation and has personal experience with evacuations.
“It’s about us leading the way,” he said. “I’ve been evacuated since I was a kid, so it’s good to see Mushkegowuk has a plan. Every First Nation needs an emergency preparedness plan.”
The work that has gone into growing the capacity for Mushkegowuk Council and individual communities is important, he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the final report and working together,” he said.
The effectiveness of partnerships and updated information were also vital in addressing issues during the evacuation.
“They need to be drafted, finalized, and regularly reviewed,” said de Ruiter. “There’s no use having yellowing pieces of paper in the bottom of a drawer. It needs to be a green document that’s constantly reviewed and updated.”
These documents include evacuation procedures, emergency response plans, and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments (HIRA) unique to each community.
The need for clarity, advanced planning, and separating politics from the evacuation were running themes throughout the presentation.
The need for quick reimbursement and a clear message on what will and will not be covered was also identified as an issue that needs to be addressed.
“It needs to be faster and more formalized,” said de Ruiter. “First Nations spend a lot of money on evacuations, and delays in reimbursement severely impacts day-to-day operational capability.”
The report is still in progress, and information gathered during the summit will be integrated into the final report.