(BEARSKIN LAKE, ON) – Barely made it out of Bearskin Lake 4 days after the State of Emergency was declared. The nearby Severn River system has a massive ice jam that has resulted in the flooding of our lands, flooding of our roads to access the airport and fuel depot and has reached the bottom of several of our houses. This has left 450 of our community members stranded and pleading for help.
Only 75 people including infants were evacuated today in two small commercial aircrafts (may I remind you this is day 4). Both flights were completely full and the last scheduled flight for additional 50 evacuees was cancelled due to pilots going over their legal flight duty hours. I asked “why can’t other pilots assist instead?” I got an “I don’t know 🤷🏻♀️”. An additional barrier to the evacuation is that helicopters need daylight to transfer people from the school to the airstrip, plus needed to be able to fly safely back to their Pickle Lake MNR base by nightfall.
I was requested by our Deputy Chief to evacuate to Sioux Lookout to assist with the evacuees on the other end. At 1:55pm I found out that our First Nations owned airline, Wasaya Airways had a flight landing at 2:30pm in Bearskin Lake and I was able to quickly reserve a seat for myself. I now had 35 min to try and get to the airport. Remember there is no road and only choppers were able to reach the airport. Luckily an old high school friend from MNR arranged for me to fly solo to the airstrip to catch my flight. He marshalled me to the helicopter, showed me how to buckle myself in my seat then went back to help with the next round of evacuees.
Leaving my land was surreal.
The whole day felt like a dream. Asking each person how they feel, including the oldest Kokum (grandma) in the community, each person said they felt sad. I cried as I hastily packed today. I cried as I left my house that I have been accommodated in as a fly-in mental health consultant. Yet my tears did not carry the amount of pain that the tears of the family’s would have when they leave their homes.
An uncle/cousin of mine was evacuated ahead of me. He has been raised hunting on the land since his childhood and knows the river system extensively.
When I landed in Sioux, he said “I’m glad you’re out of there, there are big chunks of ice still flowing down upriver, it’s pretty dangerous, it might get clogged again.”
I was finally safe. But the remaining 375 community members are still unsafe in their own homes.
Their house water tanks are running low and sewage tanks are at capacity. Water and sewage delivery trucks are working to catch up and are driving the dangerous single-lane strip of soft packed down gravel that connects the different sections of land amidst the flood waters. Their household garbage is piling up as the only road to the garbage dump is under water. Gas is being sold in increments of 25L for 2 hours a day and is told to be rationed as more will not be sold later. The store shelves are bare. Bread and other fresh foods are almost all gone. Houses are running low on fire wood as the roads to exit the community are flooded. In addition to the ongoing threat of flash flood, water continues to flow into the community near the fire station and the bridge, showing us that the end is no where in site.
Still no sign of the Canadian military, Red Cross, no Hercules aircrafts, still no gas, water, food… the list of needs is longer than our list of help coming in. Still only roughly a dozen outside emergency workers, still unpredictability in finding aircrafts (and pilots) to come up there, everything feels so uncertain. My work isn’t over though, I will continue to counsel my family and friends, advocate for more support and get loud about the dire situation I only narrowly escaped from. #thegreatescape #imsafenow #leftmyfamilybehind #leftmyland #winterflood #weneedhelp #firstpeoples #therealcanada
Authored by Joy Niibin.
Photo and video credits Joy Niibin