The City of Thunder Bay has reached the limit of the number of Pikangikum First Nation evacuees it can safely accommodate and will not accept any more.
The City of Thunder Bay has reached the limit of the number of Pikangikum First Nation evacuees it can safely accommodate and will not accept any more, city officials say.
City manager Norm Gale said Thursday there are about 1,000 evacuees from Pikangikum already in Thunder Bay. A further 200 were expected to arrive over the coming days. They will now be redirected to other communities.
Pikangikum is being evacuated due to heavy smoke from forest fires burning nearby. Keewaywin First Nation has also been evacuated due to forest fires.
The decision to refuse further evacuees was partly made due to the increased demand already being put on city services, Gale said.
“The city is seeing greater demand in support and services, including constraints on emergency services,” he said. “Safety is our top priority, and in order to provide the best support we can to those already here, we made the decision to decline any additional evacuees at this time.”
Another factor, Gale said, was the Saskatchewan government’s offer to host Pikangikum residents — and up to 2,000 evacuees — during the evacuation.
“The move by Saskatchewan was extraordinarily helpful,” Gale said. “Saskatchewan accepting 2,000 people has made a significant difference to us here in Thunder Bay.”
However, moving Pikangikum evacuees to Saskatchewan isn’t the right decision, said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
“There’s no good reason why we aren’t looking after our own here in Ontario,” Archibald said. “[Chiefs of Ontario] are requesting that municipalities open their doors to their northern neighbours during this crisis.”
She also called on all levels of government to intervene, and for the Canadian Armed Forces — which have been assisting with the Pikangikum evacuation — to prepare to increase its involvement as forest fires threaten more than 20 communities in the province.
In ‘crisis mode’
“These communities are in crisis mode,” Archibald said, noting more evacuations are possible given the current fire situation. “We are also requesting that any First Nation communities in Ontario who can act as a host community and provide support to these community members during this extremely difficult time, to contact the Chiefs of Ontario and express interest.”
“Funding is readily available to ensure that First Nations will have the resources and capacity to host evacuees.”
Sol Mamakwa, the New Democrat MPP for one of Ontario’s two far north ridings, Kiiwetinoong, said he was thankful for Saskatchewan’s assistance.
However, he said Ontario’s own government didn’t prepared adequately for the fire season and hasn’t been proactive in working with municipalities and developing emergency plans.
Ontario ‘stretched pretty thin’
“That’s unfortunate to go two provinces over,” Mamakwa said. “We understand that fires happen every year.”
“We should have had municipalities ready, towns ready, to accept these evacuees from the north,” Mamakwa added. “It’s closer to home. Cost-wise, it would be, probably, less, rather than going two provinces over.”
Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said the province is “stretched pretty thin” in terms of communities that can host evacuees, adding that towns and cities in northern Ontario often don’t have a large capacity in terms of hotel space and what exists often is booked due to tourist season.
“We were approached by [Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe] and his people, who were aware of the situation,” Rickford said.
A statement from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, however, indicated it was Ford who raised the matter with Moe.
“I raised the issue directly with Premier Scott Moe and he agreed to help,” Ford’s statement said.
Rickford expressed his thanks to those communities hosting evacuees.
“We appreciate very much that in addition to towns and cities across northern Ontario, and some that are mobilizing in southern Ontario, that … eight flights will be headed for Regina, with a total of 460 people.”
Rickford said more evacuees will be sent to Saskatchewan if necessary.
As for the travel distance, Rickford said the discussion needs “context;” the host communities in Saskatchewan are roughly the same linear distance as those in northeastern Ontario, like Timmins and Kapuskasing.
“Don’t forget, Calgary is closer to Kenora than Sudbury is,” he said.
Plus, there are many communities in Ontario already hosting evacuees from both Pikangikum and Keewaywin, Rickford said, including Sioux Lookout, Timmins, Kapuskasing, Hearst, Smooth Rock Falls, Lac Seul and Thunder Bay.
“You can’t, obviously, foresee these,” Rickford said. “Not every town or city is in a position to [host evacuees].”