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'We're going to rebuild': Indigenous communities look to recover from devastating wildfires

As her fellow community members return to their homes in the East Prairie Métis Settlement, Tamara Payou stays behind at a hotel in High Prairie, Alta., waiting.

Earlier this month, a wildfire ripped through her Indigenous community, burning down buildings, a bridge, destroying trees and leaving behind a trail of ash.

The home Payou’s family was previously living in, along with a brand new trailer they moved into this January—which were both uninsured—burned down. And ever since the fire broke out, three of their five dogs have gone missing.

Payou is also worried about her brother, who was one of the firefighters battling hotspots in the community. She said he was cutting down a tree one day, when it suddenly fell on him, knocking him out and leaving him seriously hurt. His home also burned down.

Now, Payou says she’s taking things “day by day.”

She is waiting to hear from council members and other community officials when she, her husband Cory Bellerose and their 14-year-old son, along with her brother and his family, will be able to move back into their community. An evacuation order there was downgraded from an order to an alert last Wednesday.

“Everybody else got to go home because the power and everything is hooked up at their places,” Payou told in a phone interview.

“We didn't go home because we don't have a home to go to.”

The East Prairie Métis Settlement is one of several Indigenous communities that were hard-hit by the recent wildfires in Alberta. As the wildfire season rages on, residents and community officials are looking among the ruins, pondering how they’ll recover from all the losses.

“We estimated a little over $7 million to rebuild my community with everything that we need to do — just (for) the infrastructure on the bridge itself and housing,” Raymond Supernault, chairperson of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, told in a phone interview.

“It’s crazy how much damage there was and how much it's gonna cost to replace each home.”


Located about 165 kilometres east of Grande Prairie, Alta., the East Prairie Métis Settlement has a population of roughly 300 people. The fire destroyed at least 14 occupied homes in the community, as well as barns, sheds and numerous vehicles, Supernault said.

Some homes belonged to residents for decades and housed their most cherished keepsakes, he added.

“The fire took everything in its path,” Supernault said.

“A lot of people are in shock right now, just to go back to see our community. They're looking at the houses that burnt that are not there no more. These are our neighbours, our friends, our relatives that lost a lot of houses.”

The East Prairie Métis Settlement’s focus now is to rebuild—a process Supernault reckons will take at least a year. The community plans to do it all on its own if it has to, he said.

“We're going to rebuild … and do what we need to do, because right now, we're just waiting. We're always waiting for people to say, ‘Hey, we can help you do this,’” Supernault said.

About 180 kilometres east of High Level, Alta., Fox Lake, one of three Woodland Cree communities part of the Little Red River Cree Nation, is experiencing similar heartbreak.

As of Tuesday, an evacuation order remained in place for Fox Lake as a fire—estimated to cover more than 85,000 hectares—was still burning out of control in the community. To date, the community has lost more than 300 structures, including at least 110 homes, to the fire.

Darryel Sowan, an emergency management communications co-ordinator for the Little Red River Cree Nation, said the 3,000-member community is currently spread out between an arena complex in High Level, a recreation centre in Fort Vermilion, Alta., the High Level Native Friendship Centre and a couple of hotels.

Sowan said officials from the Little Red River Cree Nation are working to set up camps that they hope to move the residents into, as they wait for the fire to settle down.

The East side of the Paskwa fire (HWF030) burns in the High Level Forest Area district of Alberta in a May 9, 2023, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Government of Alberta Fire Service, *MANDATORY CREDIT* HO

“We're trying our fastest and damnedest to get them off those cots and those mats on gym floors and get them into proper beds,” he told in a phone interview.

Sowan said the cost to rebuild the Fox Lake community, which has no year-round road access, is going to be “significant.” He noted the housing situation in Fox Lake was already “dire” before the fire destroyed dozens of homes, with some buildings housing 20 people.

“Fox Lake is only accessible by barge. It's going to be tough rebuilding this summer, because how are we going to get houses across? The barge can only take so much weight, there's no way we can put a house on a barge and move it across,” he said.

“The chief said … he doesn't want to rebuild Fox Lake how it was — he wants to build Fox Lake the way it should be. That's what we're going to try and do.”

The Little Red River Cree Nation is also paying close attention to the situation in Garden River, Sowan said.

“This situation is tense because Garden River is currently on a 24-hour evacuation notice due to the proximity of the (Paskwa fire),” he explained, adding the fire is less than seven kilometres away from that community.

In a 2022 report, Health Canada documents how First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada are "uniquely sensitive" to the impacts of climate change because they tend to live in geographic regions experiencing extreme weather and have a close relationship to and depend on the environment. This, the report notes, could exacerbate existing health and socio-economic inequities in their communities.


In an emailed statement, the Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services said the federal government is working to support Indigenous communities affected by the wildfires.

“Across the country, First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities are on the front lines of the impacts caused by wildfires. Climate change means that extreme weather events have become more frequent, severe, and destructive,” the statement reads.

“This is why our government is investing (in) meaningful climate action – and is working with Indigenous communities to get the support they need, including assisting First Nations communities through the Emergency Management Assistance Program (EMAP).”

Thick smoke from the Fox Lake fire can be seen from the barge landing on Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta. (Source: Jarvis Nanooch)

EMAP helps communities on Indigenous land access emergency assistance services. It also provides funding to provinces, territories and non-government organizations to support on-reserve emergency management.

As of Monday, the Alberta government said it had more than 2,800 personnel working on the province’s wildfire response, which includes support from partner agencies across Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Canadian Armed Forces.

Among other supports, the province is also offering one-time emergency financial assistance to those evacuated due to wildfires and has processed more than 16,400 applications to date.


Meanwhile, Supernault gave credit to Indigenous firefighters from his community and surrounding communities, who are working day in and day out to prevent further destruction.

“These guys are trained, they've been doing it all their life,” he said.

He said one positive thing that has come from the fires is that community members have rallied together.

“They came together and helped one another and it was really good to see,” Supernault said.

“That is what a community is supposed to be, right? Togetherness and helping each other.”

Multiple crowdfunding pages have been set up to aid the people of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, Fox Lake and other communities affected by wildfires. Top Stories

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