May 20, 2016.
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Steve Courtoreille hopes communication remains open with the government as Fort McMurray evacuees get ready to move on to the next stage of their ordeal.
“The communication has been great with the province. They’ve kept us well-informed on a daily basis with all the changes,” said Courtoreille, who also serves as Chief for the Mikisew Cree Nation. Many MCN members were uprooted from Fort McMurray in the May 3 mandatory evacuation brought on by a rapidly moving out-of-control wildfire. Many of those members, including members from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Metis people, lived in some of the hardest hit neighbourhoods.
“Indigenous Relations has a seat at the Provincial Operations Centre so we always have somebody representing Indigenous Relations there,” said Brent Wittmeier, press secretary for Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan.
There is also a field unit established at the POC, which works with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the First Nation Inuit Health Branch to address logistical and information needs. Human Services has an Emergency Social Services Coordination team working with evacuee reception centres to ensure Indigenous evacuees are receiving the supports they need. Through the POC, there have been additional financial supports for mandatory First Nation evacuees and for First Nations hosting mandatory evacuees.
Wittmeier points out that Premier Rachel Notley visited Courtoreille on May 6 at the Chateau Nova, on the west side of Edmonton, where many First Nations evacuees are staying. Courtoreille also accompanied Notley on her first on-the-ground tour of Fort McMurray.
Feehan also met with Courtoreille in the Chateau Nova in the early days of the evacuation order.
“The minister has been in contact with various Chiefs and leaders and directing them to that field unit… so they can address their particular concerns,” said Wittmeier.
He noted that one of those discussions resulted in the field unit coordinating supplies being airlifted by the Canadian army to Fort Chipewyan.
Wittmeier says there is community response as well. The Metis Nation of Alberta has coordinated at least two intake sessions with citizens, while the Treaty 8 sub-office has coordinated a donations distribution centre, and Fort McKay has had registration centres opened in Edmonton and Calgary.
“We’re trying to coordinate it, get everybody on the same page,” said Wittmeier, who admits there was some confusion initially with Fort McKay evacuees being turned down for debit cards. But that was resolved quickly, he says.
The province provided evacuees with pre-loaded debit cards about a week after they left their homes. Adults received $1,250 and children $500. At the same time, Red Cross undertook electronic transfers with $600 per adult and $300 per child.
“In the beginning, when things were starting to happen, people were in a panic mode and there were some gaps in the delivery of benefits,” said Courtoreille. “But things have settled down.”
On Wednesday, Premier Rachel Notley announced phased-in return to Fort McMurray, which would tentatively begin June 1. Air quality, which continues to fluctuate daily in the community, could delay re-entry. Returning to the community in early June will be voluntary, she said, as only basic services will be available.
The province also established a Wildfire Evacuation Transitional Accommodation Benefit to provide coverage for 90 days from evacuation for residents with no homes and without sufficient insurance.
Municipal Affairs Minister Diane Larivee said Thursday that housing would be made available in Fort McMurray for those who lost their homes in the fire. She said that the high vacancy rate prior to the fire will help with accommodations and then an assessment will be made to see if other temporary housing will be required.