Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
“Business as usual is killing the planet,” said Jesse Cardinal, executive director with Keepers of the Water.
Cardinal, who resides in Kikino Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta, has been watching the forests and lands around her burn since the beginning of May. Her community is not one that has been evacuated or put on notice, but the same cannot be said for many of the First Nations and Métis communities close by and those in the west.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) issued a statement May 15 that six First Nations communities remained evacuated or on evacuation alert, with five having band council resolutions in place, and 10 First Nations (at one point as high as 12) identified as being on watch for threat of wildfire.
Since May 12, five First Nations, previously threatened, are no longer under serious threat. There are 45 First Nations in Alberta.
ISC did not include the status of any of the eight Métis settlements or numerous Métis communities in the province, stating “ISC's current role is limited to offering supports to First Nation on-reserve communities through the Emergency Management Assistance Program (EMAP). Métis communities which have been affected by wildfires can access emergency response services offered by the province.”
Alberta’s wildfire incident statistics website indicates that the Métis settlements of East Prairie, Gift Lake and Peavine have states of local emergency in place.
The province has 21 evacuations orders in place with 19,294 evacuees, according to a May 16 update issued by Alberta. There are currently 86 wildfires with 24 out of control. So far, 616,000 hectares have burned.
Cardinal says there's a climate crisis in Alberta, and it's due to “environmental racism.”
She doesn’t dispute that non-Indigenous communities are also being threatened and evacuated, but says they are not impacted in the same way as Indigenous people are impacted, some of whom live in hard-to-reach areas.
“Where these disasters happen…are usually (near) Indigenous communities. We're always the first impacted because we're out on the land. Our communities are out on the land,” said Cardinal. “We are bush people. We choose to be bush people. That's who we are.”
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu acknowledged the impact climate events were having on Indigenous communities when she appeared on CBC’s Power & Politics Monday.
“The reality is many First Nations communities are living in more remote circumstances, closer to situations where we would see, for example, a higher risk of forest fires and, of course, are relying extensively on the land,” she said.
Hajdu said thousands of people had been evacuated, and hundreds of homes and many community infrastructure sites had been claimed by wildfires in Indigenous communities.
“It's been an incredible challenge and it's been a heartbreaking challenge,” she said.
Hajdu said the federal government’s emergency management budget “tends to get overspent and that's just an indication of just how frequently these climate-related disasters are happening, whether it be flooding on an ongoing basis that communities face with the rising tides or unpredictable atmospheric flooding that we saw in B.C….and then, of course, fire that we're seeing right now.”
In light of what has been occurring in the past decade, Cardinal takes exception to Premier Danielle Smith’s initial characterization of the wildfires as an “unprecedented” situation.
“It is striking how many fires, how many floods, how many earthquakes we have had in Alberta. How many air quality warnings we have had. How many water advisories we have had. How many heat wave records we have had,” said Cardinal. “You can clearly see that in the past 10 years we have been experiencing major extremes that we have never seen before on a more regular basis.”
Scientists say it is carbon emissions due to industrial extraction and human activity that is causing these changes, something the current UCP government doesn’t want to recognize, says Cardinal. Proof comes in the lack of changes to Alberta’s extraction industry,which is spurring on the climate emergency, she contends.
Industry pushes Indigenous communities to sign on to one more project, always with a little more financial incentive than the previous one, says Cardinal.
“The planet cannot afford 10 more projects because now the extraction that's happening is for greed. It's not for need,” she said.
Industry calls it reconciliation now, she adds, but reconciliation would be retroactive payments for the 50 years of extraction that has already occurred.
Cardinal also points to the impact these “massive projects” have had on Indigenous lands and culture, changing the landscape by leaking chemicals into the soil and water.
Hajdu said her department was not only responding to climate disasters, but also “environmental disasters” and referenced the numerous tailings leaks at Imperial’s Kearl oilsands in northeastern Alberta.
The actions of Imperial Oil and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) have come under scrutiny and heavy criticism since it became public knowledge that the tailings seepages were occurring months before Indigenous communities downstream of the site were informed.
“We are starting to see signs of water contamination and this is a significant health risk for First Nations who rely on not just the water but, of course, all of the wildlife who are consuming that water for their sustenance,” said Hajdu.
Métis communities have also been impacted by the Kearl site event.
Indigenous leaders want to see AER dismantled and Cardinal is pushing for Indigenous communities to be fully involved when it comes to oversight of industrial operations.
“We need something new that involves co-management. First Nation and Métis settlement people need to be at the decision-making table. We live here. We know these lands. We completely understand what is needed to properly manage these lands. We see now that the government of today is failing. They don't know how to manage the land,” said Cardinal.
“At one time it was one area or one town that was the sacrifice zone. What we're saying is Alberta is the sacrifice zone, and these politicians are refusing to acknowledge it and …they're liable right now for the decisions that they're making. They are liable and contributing to the cause of climate change and so we're saying things need to change. We've been saying that for a long time.”
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.