As the fire season extends into September across the NWT, an unprecedented and devastating amount of land continues to burn.
With more than 15 million hectares of land across Canada already burned, this summer was the country’s worst wildfire season on record – and the worst in the Northwest Territories’ recorded history. A dozen communities in the territory experienced at least one evacuation in the past four months.
Amid the chaos, Cabin Radio spoke with South Slave Elders – at their homes, in southern evacuation centres and even on the fire line – about their experience of the change that’s happening to the land, and to their communities.
This is what they had to say.
“This is a hard thing, for us to be removed from our land. Our forefathers never, ever experienced that,” said Roy Fabian, a former chief of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, which has been under an evacuation order since August 13. The community hopes to begin bringing back essential workers on Tuesday, a month after the order to leave.
“I bet you they never imagined the First Nations people being removed from their traditional land. But it’s happened to us three times in the last 15 months,” he said.
“We’re refugees and we can’t go home. We have no idea when we’re going to go home. So, the people are suffering,” said Fabian.
The fires, droughts and floods are a result of disharmony in nature that needs our attention, according to Fabian.
“All the negative impacts of development is causing certain things like global warming, and in that process, nature is going to respond the only way it knows how to respond,” he said.
“We’ve got things we need to work on in order to take care of Mother Earth so she doesn’t have to respond the way she does. The issue is harmony. We need to get into harmony with Mother Earth.”
The disharmony in nature and people is rooted in a lack of respect, according to Fabian. “I hear a lot of people say, ‘I respect the Elders.’ They don’t behave like Elders,” said Fabian. “If you’re going to respect the Elders, you’ve got to behave like an Elder.”
“Back in traditional times, people maintained their humility, their harmony and their honour and their humanity in order to take care of Mother Earth,” he continued. “They were so harmonized that they left very little footprint.”
Fabian was raised traditionally until the age of nine, when he was sent to school off the land. Building from his foundation in Dene teachings during childhood, Fabian has spent his life learning how to live in harmony with nature and with himself.
“At one point I realized I was not a Dene, even though I spoke the language and physically I was a Dene. I realized I didn’t have the beliefs, the values, the knowledge, and the skills to be a genuine Dene,” Fabian said. “I had to self-reflect, and I still do that today.”
Fabian says the recent evacuations have compounded the issue of disharmony, as northerners spend extended periods away from home.
“Because of colonization, we’re living with challenges in our own community, and those challenges are things like addictions, poverty, poor leadership, and all these things,” Fabian said.
“When we’re evacuating, those things come with us.
“To maintain our wellbeing in evacuation, we just need to continue to be humble. Part of humility is to pray for the Creator to strengthen us, so that we can continue to be kind, we can continue to be respectful, we continue to care for one another and Mother Earth.”
He believes mistakes are part of the process.
“There are times when things that are happening, that are impacting me, weaken my resolve and I react negatively,” he said.
“We’re humans, we make mistakes.
“You’ve got to love yourself, you’ve got to be kind to yourself, you’ve got to respect yourself, and you’ve got to take care of yourself.
“Once your cup is full, people are going to get drawn to you. People are going to see the goodness in you and they’re going to get drawn to it. I pray for Dene people who make that journey.”
With more than 30 years’ experience working in fire management in the North, Beatrice Lepine has spent decades witnessing changes on the land that have led up to this season.
“If we take care of our lands, it’ll take care of ourselves. Fire is a natural part of that process. But in a year like this,” Lepine said, “the fires were unstoppable.”
Speaking about the risks of climate change has become Lepine’s driving force as a Cree Elder.
She says she has lived in Hay River for seven decades, and has been vocal at past public meetings about the effects of climate change as her community suffers disaster upon disaster.
Her focus is the land, ensuring people continue to have access for years to come.
“The land is very, very important to me. And protecting our lands, you know, it’s a basic,” she said.
“And if people still insist that the climate is not changing, they still insist that carbon … emissions from what we’re doing is not causing this, then they really need to have their heads examined,” said Lepine.
“We need to do something about that.”
Fred Mandeville began fighting fires in his home community of Fort Resolution at 15 years old. This year’s fire season brought him out of a five-year-long retirement to serve as branch director of a fire threatening Yellowknife.
With more than 30 years of experience fighting fires, Mandeville has seen extreme fires like this before, he said, but he hasn’t seen so many threaten communities – spreading thin the territory’s resources and straining efforts to keep fires contained.
On the land fighting fires, Mandeville says he “hasn’t seen any wildlife whatsoever, other than squirrels and small little rodents and stuff.”
“I haven’t seen moose. I saw one bear, but no big game, not even rabbits,” he told Cabin Radio. “That’s the disheartening part of it.”
In times of stress, when he’s mentally and physically drained from fighting fires, Mandeville leans on the values by which he was raised.
“Just take things one day at a time,” he said. “My old grandfather used to say, ‘Never give up.’ Those are the words I live by through my adult life. When I’m out on a fire, I work by those values. I’m not one to give up easily.”
Most of Mandeville’s community lived a traditional lifestyle when he was growing up. He says he can see how changes in the world are impacting younger generations who face greater distractions, pressures, and obstacles than those who came before.
“Kids growing up today I think have a lot more obstructions,” said Mandeville. “In today’s world, it’s all the modern technology and things change every day, so they have to adapt to that so they don’t get left behind.”
He believes it’s all about striking a balance. Past years brought flooding – this year was droughts and wildfires.
“That’s nature. Mother Nature is going to do what it wants to do. You just have to take it in stride,” he said.
“When you go out on the land, you have to be prepared for anything that can come your way.”
Margaret Leishman starts every morning the same way: she goes outside and listens.
“If I do hear birds or animals in the distance, and in what directions, that’s the guideline that I would apply to my life and for the day,” said Elder Margaret, from Kakisa.
“As a Dene living on the land, I have a very close connection to the land all my life. These animals and the birds are my informers. They tell me where the danger is or where good news will be coming from. So, they’re like my teachers and my guideline.
“With all the fires going all around us, I’m thinking about all the animals that are dying because of the fires.”
Those with a close relationship to the land feel the impacts of climate change first. This summer, Elder Margaret’s harvesting was disrupted by the poor weather conditions.
“Because it’s been so dry and no rain, I couldn’t find any cranberries,” she said. “That’s food that I harvest every fall for the winter.”
Elder Margaret relies on the land for food, and is worried how the fires will impact the years to come. She believes respect for the land is missing, which has caused the changes we’re seeing today.
“In 2014, we had a fire in my area and it burned out all our trails that went out to the rabbit snares, and trails that went out to our berry-harvesting areas, and trails that went out to our trapping,” Elder Margaret recalled.
“We had to restart all over again – go in different places to find berries, to go to our hunting grounds. It’s a lot of work.”
Over the past 40 years, Elder Margaret says she has adapted her behaviour to continue harvesting traditional foods amid changes she has noticed on the land. She says doing so has kept her healthy.
“Self-care and going onto the land, harvesting – I did that for my berries and I did that for my food – that really helped me through life,” she said.
“Take care of yourself in a really good way. That way your awareness will be always sharp, your hearing will always be sharp, your eyes will always be clear, and your feeling will be really true to you.”
Especially for those still under evacuation orders, she said, it’s important to take care of your health, keep in contact with others, and keep active.
“Do things that you love doing. Always do things that make you happy. And not dwell on the past,” Elder Margaret said. “Finding somebody that you can talk to or just sit with and have tea and share stories. Don’t be by yourself, always be with people.”
Elder Margaret also believes there’s strength in a positive attitude through today’s challenges and stress.
“I have a friend that lost her house because of the fire. She said to me, ‘I need to think about what I’m going to return to. I’m an evacuee and I’m out in the south… I got to know my granddaughter better,’” said Elder Margaret.
“I told her: Natural disasters or personal loss in life, if something crossed your path, it’s for a reason. Instead of thinking about being stressed out, there’s a granddaughter that is there to distract you and you form a good relationship with her.
“For everything that is a loss in life, we need to grieve in a good way and make it right. We’ll remember what we did last time to go through that, and then learn from it and apply it for the present.”
Recently, Elder Margaret put out bird feed on the land to help replace the missing food for animals in the area. So far, she has seen squirrels, birds, and chipmunks come to eat. Elder Margaret said they listen when she speaks to them – the trees, ravens, even her little dog.
“Whenever I’m harvesting berries out on the land, or if I’m hunting, or I’m just walking on a trail someplace, I keep talking so that everything hears me when I’m out there,” she said.
“At the end of each day, I’m really happy that I took care of myself, and I would say to my environment, ‘Mahsi.’
“I just pay the land with a little bit of tobacco once or twice a year, and just say thank-you for providing me with all the things that my body need to survive.”