Dorothy Dubrule broke down in tears as she recounted getting on the highway and travelling south because of wildfire evacuations in her village of Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask.
“Every year, when I hear of smoke and fire, it triggers me. It’s like, ‘oh my god, I have to do something about this, I have to go somewhere.’ I’m like a little mouse running around in circles.”
Dubrule has experienced anxiety and panic since 2015, when she ended up in hospital for more than three weeks because of health issues created by the thick smoke from a wildfire.
“I just could not go through what I went through in 2015. It was devastating for me. It was absolute hell. Sitting in the hospital room looking out the window and watching the smoke wave in and out of the community.”
Wildfires are continuing to rage in northern Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta, Quebec and Ontario. Some people are being forced to evacuate their communities multiple times.
The stress from the situation is impacting mental health for some, like Dubrule.
“I’m really super vigilant all summer long, just watching the skies,” she said. “Making a 360 around our community I go, ‘Is there fire over there? Or is there smoke coming up?’ It’s grueling and it’s terrible, and it’s a horrible way to live, but that’s what it is for people like me.”
She said she prefers the cooler winter weather, when she knows there won’t be any fires or smoke that could choke her.
Meadow Lake Tribal Council Vice Chief Richard Derocher said there are evacuations underway across numerous northern communities, and many of them have been evacuated before.
“You’re being displaced from your home and have to leave your home to mother nature, I guess to look after for you, and you have no control over that. I think that’s the big thing, having no control,” Derocher said.
He said that what hurts him most is watching scared elders being pushed out of their homes and sent to concrete jungles that they know nothing about.
“For them to break down in front of you and cry, that hurts, and to see that because of something none of us can control.”
He said the pandemic was hard on the mental health of people living on First Nations. They were being locked in, and now they’re being locked out.
“We had lots of crises during COVID — an increase of gang activity, alcoholism. So I believe it’s going to be the same effect that we’re going to get out of this now. We’re going to have to be back in again, and do the mental fight and give the mental support that our people need,” Derocher said.
He added that the impact on youth is also severe, as their normal patterns of school and friends are disrupted, sometimes for weeks.
Tara McGee, a professor in the University of Alberta’s department of earth and atmospheric sciences, interviewed 28 residents about their evacuation experiences as part of her research.
McGee said that while evacuations can be stressful experiences, there are many factors that influence people’s experiences. For instance, if they didn’t have any time to prepare to leave, that has a negative impact, whereas if someone had time to get organized it might feel different.
“Once people return to the community, that’s not the end of the stress that people feel. They still have to go through a process of potentially grieving depending on what was lost,” McGee said.
Evacuees from remote communities can face language barriers, traffic issues and other differences between their home and host communities.
McGee said there are some positives according to her research, “one community in Alberta in particular, seeing how they’ve adjusted, how they’ve carried out evacuations because of their previous experiences. So going through an evacuation can have that learning.”
She said her team conducted interviews with people who were still dealing with emotions even years after an evacuation.
“We’ve talked to people who’ve cried during interviews, just because it is such a traumatic experience,” she said.
James Waldram, anthropology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the evacuation process can trigger some people’s memories of residential schools.
“When you look at the actual core features of being ordered to leave the community, sometimes police involvement in doing so, being taken to dormitory style rooms to stay,” Waldram said. “Families being involuntarily split up, people being put on buses and taken away often to places they don’t know.”
He said all of this has direct parallels to the residential school experience, which might explain why some people might be reluctant to leave their communities.
Waldram said that all communities should be involved in deciding how the evacuation process unfolds so that people can feel a sense of control and where they go and what they do.
He said that one of the key insights from research was that extended families need to be kept together. Right now most evacuations are done using categories based on health conditions, which can lead to people being separated from their families.
“If we apply that southern urban, non-Indigenous model of what constitutes a core family, we are missing the significance of the social and cultural dynamics of northern Indigenous families,” he said.
Waldram added that the government should not be surprised by wildfires and have to scramble to figure out where and how to take people. He said Indigenous communities should host other Indigenous communities in a more culturally appropriate way.