On Aug. 29, 2017, I was driving in my car listening to CBC Radio. A woman named Trish Morrisseau was being interviewed when I switched on the radio.
She was speaking about how people from the Poplar River First Nation needed some help. They had been evacuated from their community due to forest fires.
Trish was working to gather donations, such as clothing and baby supplies, for the people who were placed in hotels until it was safe to return home.
The Red Cross manages the care of people during natural disasters, but Trish found that her relatives and fellow Band members weren’t receiving everything they needed to be comfortable—they needed simple items like clean socks and a change of clothes.
She had started a grassroots movement, and I was compelled to get involved.
Using Facebook, I contacted Trish and asked her how people could help. She was sending personal messages to so many people, trying to organize things by herself.
I suggested that a Facebook group might be more effective as it would make it easier for more people to contact her, learn from her, and share their donations and time more easily.
It was Aug. 29, the same day I heard Trish on the radio, that I started the Facebook group.
At the same time, hundreds, and then thousands of First Nations citizens would be forced to leave their home communities because of aggressive smoke from uncontrolled forest fires. Approximately 4000 people from the Island Lake communities of Garden Hill, Wasagamack, and St. Theresa Point, were evacuated to Winnipeg and Brandon.
There wasn’t enough space to place everyone in hotels. Entire families, pregnant women, and Elders were placed into evacuation centres set up at the Winnipeg Convention Centre and a large soccer complex on Leila Avenue in north Winnipeg. People had a cot set up for them with very little privacy.
It was organized chaos. The Red Cross was rightly focused on getting people out of their communities safely.
If you’ve never been to any of the Island Lake communities, it’s important to know that they are fly-in communities. You need to take a small boat across a lake to get anywhere, including to an airport. It took days of coordination to get everyone out.
Tragedies are compelling. I knew people would want to help, but I was surprised at how quickly things came together. The Facebook group, called “Helping Manitoba Forest Fire Evacuees in Winnipeg & Brandon,” has quickly grown to more than 2000 members in less than two weeks.
The group is being used by volunteers who want to help and some of the evacuees have managed to find us as well—we try to spread the word when we deliver donations.
I’ve also been using Instagram and Twitter to spread the word, and have asked local leaders such as MLA Judy Klassen and Grand Chief Sheila North-Wilson to share my posts. Various media outlets contacted both Trish and I for interviews about the Facebook group.
It appears that word spread, as evacuees are now posting their donation requests/personal needs directly to the page. They can also send them to one of the administrators if they are too shy or embarrassed to post their request directly on the page.
The Facebook group has two administrators—Trish Morrisseau and myself. We’ve never met in person, but we plan to meet once things calm down. We’ve spoken on the phone about some of the concerns we’ve had and we tag-team to ensure that all requests and queries receive answers in a timely manner. We also have an army of volunteers who help to make sure we are meeting all the requests that come in.
It’s been a really busy and fulfilling time, besides the massive migraine I had for five days—I spoke with a doctor who suggested that my migraine was a result of “vicarious trauma.” Apparently, this is common amongst people like therapists, who are helping others to work through their own trauma.
I can’t say I’ve spent a lot of time with the evacuees. I did travel to the shelter at the soccer complex as well as to one of the hotels to meet with evacuees and provide donations to them.
I was quickly humbled, remembering how important it is to show the utmost respect to people who are put into these positions where they have no control—I’ve often written about “native pride” in earlier work I’ve done with health care providers. I remembered that many Indigenous people won’t reach out for help—we are a strong people who will do our best to take care of ourselves and our families.
I didn’t take any photos of the people I was helping as I felt it was important to let them maintain their privacy. I also felt very reluctant about asking any of them to do an interview with me, as I didn’t want them to feel that I expected something in return for helping them.
It’s important to share some of the successes that have resulted from creating this Facebook group. Here are a few of them:
- hungry babies received baby bottles and formula—volunteers delivered them to strangers in the middle of the night;
- babies, children, women, men, and Elders received donations of clothing and other essential goods;
- new babies were born and helped by people to get “home” from the hospital safely;
- children, youth, and families received soccer balls, magic shows, and many other wonderful opportunities through the kindness of people connected here;
- community members have shared information about developments they knew were happening, even when leaders refused (or were unable) to share new info;
- a drop-off place for donations in Brandon was established at the Rosser Medical Clinic, even though it took well over a week of asking to find someone willing to set up a donation location in that city;
- we’ve created a network of volunteers who drive donations around, provide rides to evacuees, and also people who work behind the scenes creating and maintaining spreadsheets of donation requests;
- a hairdresser traveled to a hotel in Headingley to provide free haircuts for a number of evacuees staying there;
- caring companies like Co-op, Michael’s, Canadian Tire, and more have come forward to show support to the evacuees; and
- one volunteer driver came by my home today to pick up donations and told me that her work delivering goods to evacuees has helped her get out of bed and fight her debilitating depression.
There are many other positive outcomes; they are too numerous to record.
I can’t say there have been very many negative experiences—we did have one troubling incident with someone, and as page administrators, we quickly decided to delete and “block” this individual. I do feel very thankful that it seems like most people joined the group simply because they wanted to help or wanted to reach out for help.
While I’ve sometimes felt overwhelmed by how busy my life became because of this group, I was also in awe of the supportive community that was created for people when they most needed it.
Many of the volunteers are non-Indigenous—their support, to me, is a part of reconciliation.
Most of us are moms—the majority of volunteers are busy women who are balancing careers, parenthood, and other responsibilities.
Lucille Ball once said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” That sentiment has come to mind many times in the past little while as I ponder my admiration of the dedicated volunteers.
This story will have a happy ending. The people from Poplar River returned home last week. The people from St. Theresa Point are on their way home now. Members of Garden Hill and Wasagmack First Nation remain in Brandon and Winnipeg and await news of when they will be able to return home.
Our group is currently working to collect donations of duffel bags and suitcases for the people who are travelling home. We’d like them to be able to pack their clothing and other donations in something other than a garbage bag.
If you’d like to help, please join our Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/135594573724844