PIKANGIKUM, ONT – After an Emergency Declaration was issued by the First Nation community of Pikangikum due to several forest fires burning in the immediate area, nearly half of the 4,400 residents have been evacuated. Chief Amanda Sainnawap said “we have concentrated our efforts on evacuating the most vulnerable in our community including elders, children and families. This has been the priority with the resources we have.”
“Smoke has been blowing away from the community over the last few days creating a false sense of safety for residents that the fires might be under control” stated Mathew Hoppe of the Independent First Nation Alliance (IFNA), the community’s Tribal Council who has been commander of the community evacuation center set up at the Eenchokay Birchstick School under the Provincial Emergency Operations Center.
Chief Sainnawap added “we are grateful for all of the responders who are assisting the community during this dangerous situation. They include the Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian Rangers, OPP, area tribal councils, IFNA, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, teachers, volunteers and of course the host communities that are taking our members into their own communities. We know how monumental the task is to house over 2,000 of our people in so many communities. It is much appreciated.” Residents have been moved to Timmins, Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing, Cochrane, Smooth Rock Falls, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The fire is burning on land that is marked for expansion for the growing community. Pikangikum First Nation is a rarity in that very few people ever leave the community. It is strongly rooted in culture and a vast majority of the residents, including young people, speak its traditional language of Ojibway.
The expansion land is desperately needed as Pikangikum is experiencing an unprecedented population increase with over 200 births alone last year in the community of 4,400. The high school, which only opened its doors in the fall of 2016, is at capacity this year and may have to start looking at portable classrooms in the near future to accommodate the growing youth population. “If anything good can come of this terrible situation it might be that the proposed expansion land regenerates from the ashes and provides a new future for our community” muses Chief Sainnawap.
Pikangikum’s first ever female Chief was only elected a few months ago and is now facing one of the biggest challenges the community has experienced in years. “Being Chief of a remote community like Pikangikum is a huge responsibility. We work with fewer and different resources than urban centers, and everyone here who is part of the leadership team wears multiple hats” said Sainnawap. She added that “When an emergency like this happens, it’s all hands-on deck. For example, we turned our high school into an evacuation centre and prepared to transport our members to safety. I cannot thank those who have come to our aid enough.
Together we are successfully managing a large-scale evacuation and hoping for the day to come when our community members can come home.”