‘It’s just like we’re forgotten people’: Indigenous evacuees waiting to go home

KAPUSKASING — Paul Edwards sits alone at a bare table and washes down scrambled eggs with coffee in the large auditorium of the civic centre in Kapuskasing, Ont., while in a small motel room on the nearby TransCanada Highway, his wife Lottie is hooked up to a dialysis machine.

The couple and their two grown children have been away from their First Nations community in Fort Albany on James Bay for almost two months now — since unusually deep frost caused the sanitary sewers to freeze and back up.

“I haven’t heard anybody talking about us. I don’t see anything in the newspapers or on TV,” Edwards says glumly. “It’s just like we’re forgotten people.”

Edwards, 54, and his ailing 50-year-old wife arrived in this northern Ontario town along with 29 other evacuees on Feb. 26. The Comfort Inn is their third home away from home since arriving. So far, only five of the group have managed to go back to their community.

When the rest can make the 320-kilometre flight north remains uncertain.

“It’s very stressful,” Edwards says, his eyes misting. “Two months in a motel with a dying person? It’s frustrating. There’s not enough room in there.”

In his office upstairs from the auditorium, Mayor Alan Spacek says hosting Indigenous people from remote communities in their time of need has become part of Kapuskasing’s fabric.

“We have a very strong working relationship with the Indigenous community,” Spacek said.

Each year, for example, the largely blue-collar town of about 8,300 takes in 500 evacuees escaping spring flooding from Kashechewan. They are expected to start arriving in the next week or so.

While the arrivals are expected to stay for a short while — 60 days is considered short term — one evacuation ended up lasting three years.

“They’re in a difficult situation,” says Guylain Baril, chief administrative officer for Kapuskasing. “We try to offer the best possible support and service and care within the guidelines.”

Ottawa lays out the guidelines and foots the bill for dealing with the evacuees, but the town itself has set up a permanent team to co-ordinate the relocation and housing effort for some of the most vulnerable people in the province.

The undertaking involves subcontracting various services _ such as catering three meals a day in the auditorium, making sure people have transportation, enrolling children in schools where appropriate, and ensuring the arrivals have access to medical care in a town already chronically short of doctors.

While the influx provides economic fuel for a town that relies heavily on forestry and mining, Baril says the situation puts strain on services and facilities. One of the biggest challenges is keeping evacuees productively occupied.

“You can imagine that for 60 days in a hotel room, you get really, really bored and their anxiety levels climb,” Baril says. “I would like to think we’re not making things worse for them.”

At a storefront centre in the town’s core, evacuees co-ordinator Guylaine Ouellette keeps a flip chart with activities such as swimming, movies or bowling. In a storage room, she shows the new strollers and other purchased items that help make life a little easier for the displaced.

Still, it’s impossible to escape the reality of the far-from-ideal situation the evacuees are in. Whatever its problems, Edwards misses home fiercely. And despite the helping hand, he says, Kapuskasing still feels alien, even resentful of their presence.

“We’re First Nations. This is our land. But ?” Edwards says, his voice trailing off.

People, he says, don’t always seem to understand how the everyday — such as a large transport truck or a train — can still spark wide-eyed wonder in those who may be away from their reserves for the first time.

Over at the co-ordination centre, Baril ponders the gulf.

“To sit here and to claim there is no cultural divide would be a lie,” Baril says. “It’s two different cultures mixing together and it’s never going to change.”

At the same time, he says, both the citizens of Kapuskasing and the Indigenous visitors have learned from each other over the past 12 years and the divide has narrowed.

“We’ve come a long way,” Baril says.

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