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How an Ontario First Nation is taking an Indigenous-led response in times of crisis

When Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario experienced spring flooding this year, Missanabie Cree First Nation led the charge to help.

The evacuation and response were part of Ontario’s first Indigenous-led approach to helping in times of crisis.

Missanabie Cree First Nation ISN Maskwa’s Indigenous Emergency Operations Centre, based out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., provides support services to fellow First Nations communities.

“The success is really that the people on the frontline are Indigenous. In a lot of circumstances, they can speak the language, and the people who are being organized for evacuation and ultimately hosted see themselves and the people who are helping them,” said Joseph Sayers, general manager of Missanabie Cree business corporation.

He notes that having fellow First Nations at the forefront of the response can help reduce tension for those in need and bypass any possible cultural barriers.

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“These are the people who have been training them, helping them plan, collecting names for manifests. So I think that makes all the difference in how other folks feel they’re being managed because they’re not just victims, but they also have a measure of control in their own situation, which is very important for anybody,” Sayers said.

He said in the past, when those from smaller communities were moved into large urban centres, they were targets for drug and human traffickers.

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The goal is to provide the services needed within the base community, and to arrange logistics for things such as air transport, ground transportation, accommodations, catering, or security help for the folks who are being displaced, Sayers said. “We’re building a one-stop shop in that sense to ensure that all needs are met.”

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Sayers said they have been working with the people in Kashechewan to develop the evacuation plan since January in anticipation of the expected flooding caused by the Albany River’s annual ice breakup.

So far, over 400 people have been evacuated to communities including Barrie, Ont., with more people being airlifted every day.

Of those evacuated, Sayers said at least 140 were airlifted to Barrie for medical needs, including pregnancy, dialysis, and other health concerns.

The city of Barrie said it looks forward to working with ISN Maskwa. “We welcome the opportunity to have community members from Kashechewan First Nation in our city,” said Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall. “We’re honoured to open our community to you and hope you feel at home.”

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Sayers notes that many of those living in the community have also chosen to stay behind.

“There is a segment of the community that participates in what they call the on-the-land initiative, whereby when there is a threat of flooding or fire and they have to be evacuated, folks have an option to go onto their trap line or their hunting camps and kind of wait out the threat,” he said.

Missanabie Cree First Nation ISN Maskwa’sIndigenous Emergency Operations Centre team members. Supplied by ISN Maskwa

Sayers said the initiative is supported by all levels of government, including Emergency Management Ontario and the federal government.

Over the last three years in operation, the centre has worked to build a team and a partnership with different agencies, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to prepare for emergencies.

“The chief of the community typically calls our number or Emergency Management Ontario, so there’s no wrong door when they reach out for help,” Sayers said. “Then we put together a unified command meeting right away, and then we assess the situation, talk to the community, and discuss amongst ourselves what’s the best approach to respond.”

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He said that planning the evacuation is good practice for the team leading up to the upcoming fire season.

“I think we’re positioned for a successful year when it comes to being able to respond quickly,” he said. “Time can mean the difference between life and death in these situations, so we’re very fortunate to be given this opportunity to kind of get all this in place.”

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