Lifting fire evacuees’ spirits


Lifting fire evacuees’ spirits

Jeannie Marie-Newell of Fort Smith, NWT, said sheltering out of the region for over two weeks has begun to “take a toll” on wildfire evacuees.

“Initially, it was surreal and scary, but I was not mentally prepared,” said Marie-Newell, who served as the first female speaker in the history of the Northwest Territories legislature from 1993 to 1994. “I don’t think you can ever really be prepared for something like this.”

A Cree Catholic, Marie-Newell said “her spirit and faith is strong” during chapters of adversity, such as the present moment. She strives to offer steadiness and comfort to fellow refugees who have relocated to Edmonton as the fires threatened their northern communities, restless to return home.

“I keep telling them, ‘You know you can’t (right now).’ Let’s try and make the best of our situation. I am trying to be supportive of people who are getting frustrated. I think their spirits just need to be lifted.”

Dene/Cree artisan Suzan Marie, who was born and raised in the Northwest Territories, is providing a heartening tonic to do just that. She has led multiple cultural workshops on how to heal through art at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples and at the TELUS World of Science museum over the past fortnight.

An Aug. 19 session at Sacred Heart Church drew 13 women who fled Fort Smith, Hay River or Yellowknife. The ladies wore wide smiles while posing with their reindeer hair tuft earrings. Marie-Newell made porcupine quill earrings at a class hosted at the science museum on another day.

Marie, who was encouraged to lead these cultural workshops at the invitation of Indigenous elders and Sacred Heart pastor Fr. Susai Jesu, said the attendees conveyed gratitude and joy for this occasion.

“They were pleased with how Alberta has welcomed the refugees and with how the province has created different opportunities to make them feel welcomed and at ease as they await to go home,” Marie said. “They said they were peaceful and were able to become balanced and centred. Also, they were grateful to be among other friends from the north. It brought a sense of community and wellness.”

Marie MacDonald, a Métis woman who vacated Bell Rock, a hamlet outside of Fort Smith, jumped at the chance to attend a session. She was not able to attend a lesson when the artist visited Fort Smith years ago. The long-awaited experience was exactly what MacDonald hoped for and needed.

“They provided all the materials, the teaching was excellent and they offered lunch,” said MacDonald. “It was just fantastic. Suzan Marie possesses excellent Indigenous knowledge, and her skill is exceptional. She was so generous to share it with us.”

Marie-Newell offered similar glowing sentiments about the sessions.

“I met many women from across the north that I didn’t know. It was a healing experience in the way that you create the warmth and friendship from other people all attempting to complete the same type of work,” said Marie-Newell. “I’m very grateful she took the time to share her knowledge.”

Both Marie-Newell and MacDonald were inspired to purchase the supplies so they can each refine their skills and pass on what they have learned.

Marie said the past couple of years has blessedly seen a “huge comeback of the interest in Indigenous art like porcupine quilling, beading, tufting.” Indigenous peoples are reclaiming their culture and non-Indigenous Canadians are taking a greater interest during this ongoing journey of reconciliation.

Emotion filled MacDonald’s voice as she relayed a story from her early life to express “how powerful” it is for her to now openly celebrate and embrace her First Nations tradition.

“I was raised in Lethbridge, Alta., and educated there. I experienced a lot of discrimination as a First Nations person — a lot of teasing at school,” she said. “My mother at that time was thinking about how to protect her child in this situation. She said, ‘Marie, your last name is Villebrun. That’s a French name. You just tell those kids you are French.’ And I did that. I never got teased again for being Indigenous. I also lived my life denying who I was and my culture.

“I am so grateful for people who are bringing it back to me, and teaching me my own culture, my own heritage. They are pulling me back to everything I had lost.”

MacDonald, Marie-Newell and others avidly check social media and communicate with any loved ones back home to stay apprised of the firefighting effort. MacDonald found out on Aug. 25 that a fire was raging just 2.8 kilometres from her house.

“That’s terrifying to have a fire that close to your house,” said MacDonald. “But we trust these guys, and this crew is working so hard for our community. We wish them all the best and we pray for their safety. We pray for each other too.”

The firefighters’ efforts appear to be working. While not out of danger just yet, by Aug. 29 firefighters had fought the blaze outside of Yellowknife to a standstill and there was talk about letting people return home in the near future, though no date was set. NWT officials announced a five-phase re-entry plan for residents Aug. 28, key to it being sure the community is safe from fire. The next phases will be: checking community for damage; returning essential personnel such as health-care and municipal workers; re-establishing basic services like grocery stores and gas stations; and then returning residents to their communities.

MacDonald first fled her home to Hay River on Aug. 11 at the behest of her daughter. They spent two nights in Hay River. While there, MacDonald, a talented reggae singer-songwriter, was invited to perform in a festival in the nearby hamlet of Enterprise, which not long afterward was essentially decimated by the wildfires.

“We left within 90 minutes of them calling the evacuation order. It was terrifying. As we travelled to the Alberta border, there was such smoke. We had no idea what we were driving into. I saw the smoke and the flames behind me. I felt like we had to keep moving forward or we would be trapped in the middle of two fires coming together. It was such a relief to get through that and into Alberta.”

An estimated 21,500 Northwest Territories evacuees are presently in Alberta. MacDonald and Marie-Newell have both been informed that Sept. 5 is the earliest date Fort Smith residents could potentially return home.

By Quinton Amundson

Published on The Catholic Register website