By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
June 2, 2016.
While Fort McMurray residents began returning to the community Wednesday as part of a four-day phased in voluntary re-entry process, most members of the Mikisew Cree Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation will be waiting until next week.
“We’re going to do tours of their units on June 9. Unless something changes, members will get to go in there and look at their homes,” said Mikisew Cree Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille. “Whatever the re-entry from there for our members, it will be determined…. Everything is still up in the in air, nothing really concrete in terms of when things will be back to normal. I don’t know what normal is going to be from there.”
Alberta Indigenous Relations estimates 64 homes belonging to First Nations members were lost when wildfires swept through the Wood Buffalo region and forced a mass evacuation of close to 88,000 on May 3. Close to 2,400 structures in total were consumed by fire.
For MCN, says Courtoreille, 34 families have lost their homes and an unspecified number were impacted by rental unit losses. It is unknown, he says, as to how many homes were insured and how many renters had content insurance.
Even more families have been impacted by the announcement earlier this week that they won’t be allowed to return permanently to the neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill even if their houses are standing. Contaminants in the area forced the province to restrict access to that area of Fort McMurray. June 10 has been set as the date for which people can return to still-standing homes to salvage belongings. Details have yet to be released by municipal officials.
The majority of the estimated 567 MCN members evacuated from Fort McMurray headed south, a few staying in Lac La Biche but most coming to Edmonton. Seventy-seven people returned home to Fort Chipewyan. MCN and ACFN members from Edmonton and Fort Chip will be flown to Fort McMurray for next week’s tour.
“There are mixed feelings right now. At first, they were very grateful they were okay, but also anxious to get back to their homes. And some of them don’t know the condition of their homes, some of them lost their homes that they know of, so there are mixed feelings,” said Courtoreille.
Through funding from the Red Cross and the province, MCN members have received temporary lodgings for 90 days. The majority are staying in hotels in Edmonton, although a handful have found other accommodations through their insurance. Because of the uncertainty of the situation, Courtoreille says hotel rooms are being extended on a weekly basis.
Long term plans for temporary housing is still something Courtoreille is talking to both the province and the federal government about, both in Fort McMurray and in Fort Chip.
“Even if 200 come home (to Fort Chip), we’re going to be impacted. We won’t be able to house our people. That’s my concern and that’s what I’m working with the province and the feds on, trying to get a step ahead of everything if people need to go home,” he said.
Air quality in Fort McMurray could hold up the return to that community, even if jobs are available, he adds.
Courtoreille is still calling for the province to give all MCN members the $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent funding that was provided to all evacuees in mid-May.
“That would have been the easiest way to deal with it as we were all impacted in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly,” he said, noting a strain on space, cost of groceries and health issues.
He also points to a Fort Chip resident, who has been residing in Edmonton since the Fort McMurray fire because of medical issues. Her dialysis treatment, which she would normally receive in Fort McMurray, now has to happen in Edmonton. And even with people being allowed back into Fort McMurray, the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre isn’t yet fully operational so people requiring regular primary care cannot receive it there.
An estimated 60 people returned to Fort McMurray First Nation on Wednesday. They were among the first group of residents to be allowed home as part of the re-entry plan. Indications are that the return went fairly smoothly, said Brent Wittmeier, press secretary for Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan.
Fort McKay First Nations members will begin re-entry June 3.
Alberta Emergency Management Agency First Nations field officers are working with the Red Cross to support First Nations evacuees and their re-entry, said Wittmeier.
Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch-Alberta continues to engage with impacted First Nations communities. Support services, such as nursing and environmental health, are in place for the re-entry of Fort McMurray First Nation and Fort McKay, he added.