As Canada reels from wildfire, First Nations hope for larger role

Advocates say that Indigenous communities must be given greater autonomy to engage in traditional burning practices.

A line of red flame tears through a forest of green conifers.
Flames tear through forest near Mistissini, Quebec, on June 12, as Canada contends with a record-breaking wildfire season [Marc-Andre Leclerc/Canadian Forces, handout/Reuters]

With Canada in the throes of a record-breaking early wildfire season, the country’s Indigenous communities, which include First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, say it is time for them to be given a more prominent role in shaping the country’s approach to fire and forest management.

“Settlers brought a vision of removing fire from the landscape to Canada. But when you take away fire, these landscapes become overgrown,” Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire specialist with Parks Canada from Treaty 8 Metis territory in Alberta, told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call.

“Indigenous people have been removed from conversations about fire management. We want to be able to steward the land and use fire on our territories.”

Those who try to do so, however, say they face numerous obstacles, from indifference to difficulty obtaining funds and equipment. Access to assistance from federal and provincial authorities can also vary by region, creating a patchwork system where Indigenous communities sometimes fall through the cracks.

But as Canada struggles to subdue wildfires that have grown in scope and intensity due to climate change, Cardinal Christianson says empowering Indigenous communities is a necessity.

“Canada has faced some bad fire seasons, so the public is looking for new solutions,” she said, pointing to options like cultural burns, the Indigenous practice of using controlled fires to reduce tinder and create healthier ecosystems.

“But if we, as a society, have decided that we want fire back on the land, it just makes sense, and it’s a matter of justice, for Indigenous people to be leading that process.”

‘Unprecedented’ fire season

Over the last several weeks, Canada’s fires have captured the world’s attention as clouds of smoke and ash envelop cities across North America, placing more than 100 million people under air quality warnings.

With the warmest summer months yet to come, hundreds of blazes continue to dot the landscape, from British Columbia in the west to Quebec and Nova Scotia in the east. Nearly 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres) of land have been scorched so far.

“The fires in Canada are really quite unprecedented,” Chief Ken McMullen, the president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), told Al Jazeera. “We have fires all across the country, and they started so early.”

McMullen said that wildfires burned about 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of land last year in Alberta. But this year, he said more than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) have already burned in that province alone.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), fires across the country have thus far torched nearly 1,600 percent of the yearly average.

“There are many variables,” said McMullen. “But I’m not out of line saying that people will be working on some of these fires for months, possibly until snowfall in October or November.”

‘Beautiful truth’

Indigenous experts and firefighters say the current infernos have underscored the failure of fire suppression policies and other approaches that see fire as a hostile force to landscape management.

They add that this is a view with roots in colonial thinking, which understood the subjugation of the natural world as a precursor to human progress.

By contrast, they say that Indigenous knowledge teaches that fire is a vital and healthy part of maintaining a balanced landscape. Controlled burns, for example, can be used as a tool to stimulate biodiversity and thin out overgrown areas that might otherwise fuel bigger fires.

Cardinal Christianson told Al Jazeera that the first total fire suppression policy in Canada was enacted in 1610, in present-day Newfoundland. Ever since, she explained, Indigenous perspectives on fire have been discouraged, if not stamped out.

As out-of-control blazes become a persistent issue, however, reintroducing fire to Canada’s landscapes through practices such as prescribed burns and cultural burning has received greater attention.

But Cliff Buettner — the director of Forestry and Emergency Protective Services at the Prince Albert Grand Council, which represents 12 tribal governments in Saskatchewan — told Al Jazeera that First Nations still face bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to cultural burning.

“We want to be able to take care of our own back yard,” said Buettner. “But liability and costs are big obstacles.”

Spaces known as Crown land, which are owned by federal or provincial authorities but contested by some First Nations communities, also have restrictions on burning practices.

“To this day, Indigenous people did not agree to the arrangements that put these lands under the control of federal and provincial authorities,” said Buettner. He added that some Crown lands were designated for First Nations under treaties that were never enforced or broken outright.

Dane de Souza, a citizen of Metis Nation and former wildland firefighter who specialises in Indigenous fire management, sees a connection between today’s fires and the restriction of Indigenous practices.

“Indigenous people have been managing fires for thousands of years,” de Souza told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call. “Putting fire on the land is a very human thing to do. But we’ve replaced fires of choice with fires of chance.”

He said there is a “beautiful truth” in the Indigenous approach to fire, one that has taken on even greater importance as countries struggle with climate change.

“When we talk about climate resilience and sustainability, that’s Indigenous knowledge,” he said. “What is being Indigenous? It’s a connection to the land.”

A group of trees are consumed by a wall of orange flames
A photo by former wildland firefighter and Indigenous fire specialist Dane de Souza shows a wall of orange flames consuming a group of trees during the 2019 Chuckegg Fire outside of Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement [Al Jazeera via Dane de Souza]

Falling through the cracks

Indigenous advocates highlight a bitter irony: While the suppression of Indigenous practices helped create the conditions for today’s fires, First Nations and Metis communities now disproportionately face the risks.

According to a 2022 paper titled “The right to burn” published in the academic journal Facets, Indigenous people contend with “unique vulnerabilities to large and high-intensity wildfires as they are predominately located in remote, forested regions and lack financial support at federal and provincial levels to mitigate wildfire risk”.

According to the federal agency Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), Indigenous people are more than 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people. As of June 29, ISC said that wildfires are currently affecting 10 First Nations across the country, with 3,752 Indigenous people evacuated.

“Historically, Indigenous firefighting has fallen through the cracks,” said Blaine Wiggins, the senior director of the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC), an organisation created to help promote cooperation between Indigenous bodies.

“First Nations are at a distinct economic disadvantage when it comes to preparing for large-scale incidents.”

He noted that, in the province of British Columbia, only a small handful of Indigenous fire services even have emergency dispatch.

ISC says that it is allocating nearly $40m to help bolster the firefighting capabilities of Indigenous communities through training and equipment provisions over a five-year period. It also has a programme that allows First Nations to reimburse expenses from disaster response and recovery.

But ambiguities in the jurisdiction of federal, provincial and tribal authorities mean that some Indigenous communities are left especially vulnerable, without the same protections afforded to other communities.

Wiggins points out that federal regulations for home fire protection do not apply to First Nations, leaving many communities in a regulatory grey zone. That can be especially dangerous when paired with poor-quality housing. A report by the Ontario Chief Coroner found that Indigenous children in the province were 86 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous children.

“There’s not a consistent approach across the country,” Wiggins said. “So there are disparities from region to region.”

De Souza also noted that, while federal funding is available for some First Nations to spend on emergency management preparedness, those who do not live in the reservation system, including many in his Metis Nation, do not qualify.

“We’ve received zero dollars of funding,” he said. “When the chips are down, some of us are citizens, and some of us are still second-class.”

But as Canada searches for solutions to its historic fires, advocates are adamant that governments need to go beyond simply adopting some Indigenous burning practices.

“We don’t want agencies to adapt and appropriate Indigenous knowledge,” said Cardinal Christianson, “without actually empowering Indigenous people and giving them greater stewardship over the land”.

Source: Al Jazeera