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Community effort helping forest fire evacuees feel welcome in the Sault

Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre executive director praises local support for more than 100 displaced residents of North Spirit Lake First Nation as forest fires continue to burn
forest fire stock shutterstock_106906292 2016
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A number of community partners have been working together in order to provide support for 102 residents of North Spirit Lake First Nation who have been forced to evacuate their homes due to ongoing wildfires in northwestern Ontario. 

The City of Sault Ste. Marie announced July 20 that roughly 100 evacuees would be accommodated locally, with logistics being handled by the municipality’s emergency management division with support from Canadian Red Cross and community, provincial and federal government partners. Indigenous Services Canada is handling the costs associated with the evacuation. 

According to Cathy Syrette, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre, the group of evacuees primarily consists of elders and a number of young families with children. Community partners have been working to meet the needs of evacuees by providing child care through the Urban Indigenous EarlyOn program, while helping elders with assistive devices and interpreters for those who only speak Oji-Cree, a cross between Ojibwe and Cree that’s prevalent in the upper reaches of the province. 

“The people have stated that they’re appreciative of the treatment they are receiving,” said Syrette, speaking to SooToday last week. “Everyone in Sault Ste. Marie is kind and friendly - and this is feedback from the community, so thumbs up to Sault Ste. Marie. We’re just awesome.”

The friendship centre is currently working in partnership with the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Indigenous Services Canada, Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, Batchewana First Nation, Garden River First Nation, Maamwesying North Shore Community Health Services and other organizations.

Syrette says the community partners are in communication on a daily basis. 

“We’re identifying the current needs of the community people, and then we also meet daily to determine those next steps, what is necessary,” she said. 

The friendship centre has also had members of the general public contact them and ask to pitch in to help evacuees. 

“They call the IFC here, and they state that they are wanting to bring donations to help the people of North Spirit Lake,” Syrette said.

The community partners providing assistance anticipate that it could be at least another couple of weeks before evacuees from North Spirit Lake can begin returning home. 

The Ontario government reported a total of 110 active fires in the northwest region Monday, with 17 fires considered not under control, seven fires being held, 13 fires under control and 73 fires being monitored.

Syrette says four new forest fires - all of them surrounding North Spirit Lake - started late last week. 

More than 3,000 people from First Nations in northwestern Ontario have been evacuated so far this summer, with thousands more that could potentially be displaced. 

“It can be exhausting. It can be tiring and traumatic also, having to pack up and leave home. You’re going to a strange place, not knowing for how long,” said Syrette. “It’s also worrisome, wondering if there will even be a home to go home to.”

Syrette says that the Sault has been “helpful, respectful, kind and gracious” to North Spirit Lake evacuees. 

“The generosity and the kindness from the people in Sault Ste. Marie is just amazing. It’s overwhelming,” said Syrette. “It’s just a flood of kindness.”

There have been 1,028 fires within Ontario’s fire region this year, more than doubling the 464 forest fires recorded in 2020.

- with files from The Canadian Press