Experiences of Disaster and “Maternal Risk” amidst Forest Fire Evacuation in Northern Saskatchewan

Pamela Downe, Julia Scharbach, James Waldram


Every year, communities are evacuated from northern regions of Canada because of threats due to forest fires. The 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, were estimated to be the costliest disaster in Canadian history (Evans, 2016), resulting in the evacuation of more than 80,000 people (Globe and Mail, 2016). The year before, the Canadian military was called in to La Ronge, Saskatchewan, to facilitate the emergency evacuation of thousands of residents displaced by a rash of wildfires (CBC News, 2015a) while provincial authorities in British Columbia issued evacuation orders due to the uncontained fires encroaching on the city of Kelowna (CBC News 2015b, 2015). Interspersed among these threats and disasters are many others, affecting smaller communities and bringing similar damages and disruptions to the affected families and communities.

As anthropological scholars of motherhood and maternal care, we must ask what the culturally-grounded experiences of mothers during disasters such as these entail. What are the political and historical forces that come to bear on those experiences? What can an ethnographic and community-based study in a recovering community offer as we work to strengthen the policies and resources that govern our responses to natural disasters? We address these questions here through our ethnographic study of the 2011 wildfire in northern Saskatchewan that resulted in the evacuation of the Wollaston Lake community where the majority of residents are members of the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation. We focus on the ways in which “maternal risk” emerges as a concept that paradoxically undermines rather than emboldens women’s roles as mothers. We argue that the fragmentation of family that occurred during the 2011 evacuation, was particularly disempowering given the historical context of Indigenous child apprehension by the Canadian state.

Cultural and Historical Context

Wollaston Lake is a community of 1300 residents located in the Athabasca region of Saskatchewan, a central prairie province in Canada. There is no road access into Wollaston Lake.  In the summer, people boat across a bay from the nearest road landing. In the winter, they drive or snowmobile across the ice. As home to the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, the majority of Wollaston Lake residents identify as Aboriginal – First Nations or Métis – and share a history as hunting peoples (caribou foraging, primarily) who constituted five Chipewyan (now properly known as Dene) bands in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and southern areas of the Northwest Territories (Smith, 1981). Dene is the predominant language spoken in the community and, according to Statistics Canada (2007), 91% of Wollaston Lake residents identify it (or another Aboriginal language) as their first language, and 93% report speaking an Aboriginal language most commonly at home.

The kinship system of the Hatchet Lake Dene is central to community life and has been for generations. Ethnographer James VanStone (1963, p. 62) noted in the 1960s that the kin-based social organization involved “complete and indiscriminate sharing” of food and other resources. Almost twenty years later, James Smith (1981, p. 276) confirmed that “The widely dispersed bilateral kinship provides the basis for cooperation, sharing, and hospitality.” Dene kinship, then, is constituted by interdependent family units that are, in turn, interconnected with a broader network of relatives “from whom one may reasonably expect assistance and to whom one first turns when venturing beyond the confines of the immediate family” (Sharp 1979, p.19). When the research on which this article was conducted in 2012, family-centered housing, reciprocal caregiving, and community engagement were as strong as ever.

Women are central to this kinship system. Although there is little literature focusing specifically on motherhood among the Hatchet Lake Denesuline, we do know that among the Inuit and Dene of northern Canada, women once had great autonomy and authority over childbirth and family nurturing. Childcare and youth mentoring were mother-led but full community undertakings, with Elders and especially grandmothers taking a significant role (Lowell 2016, p.25). Colonialism and the increased involvement of the Canadian government in Aboriginal peoples’ daily lives challenged women’s central roles in families. By the 1970s, for instance, pregnant women from northern Dene communities were required to travel by plane to hospitals in southern urban centers to give birth, separating the women from their communities and families for weeks at a time. The upheaval of removing women from their families and communities to give birth in southern hospitals exacerbated the ongoing effects of state-sanctioned child apprehension that began with the residential school system.

The Canadian residential school system, first established in the mid-1800s, brought over one hundred years of disruption to First Nations communities. Children were forcibly removed from the communities and families, placed in the residential schools and hostels, forced to speak only English or French and to adopt European dress, food, as well as standards of gendered behavior. Most residential school students were subjected to life-altering abuse and degradation at the hands of the teacher and/or school officials. Yet the system stayed in place for a century. According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 2015a, p. 4): “The federal government and the churches believed that Aboriginal parenting, language, and culture were harmful to Aboriginal children.” The intent of the residential school system, therefore, was to sever the link between parents and their children. The justification for this system included what many now recognize as inaccurate, racist and oppressive depictions of Aboriginal parents, but particularly mothers, as negligent and incompetent (Downe, 2014). Because Aboriginal people made up the majority of the population in northern regions of Canada, the removal of an entire generation of children from communities sometimes extended for years and involved great distances. As a result, the “intergenerational impacts and the legacy of the schools are particularly strongly felt in the North” (TRC, 2015b, p. 5). Compensatory and reconciliation efforts by the Canadian government are underway but the fear associated with the residential school period as well as the child apprehensions that occurred afterward has lingered in communities.

The evidence of intergenerational trauma resulting from these separations continues to mount. The behavioral and emotional consequences of forced family separations (especially children from parents) can, like other types of trauma, affect and even reshape the lives of those in subsequent generations. James Waldram (2004, p. 222) points out that in intergenerational contexts, trauma results not only from one harrowing encounter but from “a ton of stressful feathers” that are encountered continuously, individually, and collectively. Maria Brave Heart and Lemyra DeBruyn (1998) argue that the colonial and genocidal attacks on the Lakota Peoples created a cumulative trauma – a “soul wound” – that has undermined the health, well-being, and community cohesion of generations of Native Americans. Aboriginal survivors of all kinds of colonial regimes, including Canadian residential school systems, often face life-long challenges of addiction and fear. Their children consequently face life-long challenges of family dysfunction and state intervention. In turn, their children are affected by the recurring trauma associated with political and cultural disenfranchisement and abuse. In many cases, of course, this chain has been broken and Aboriginal people live full and rewarding lives. But for far too many, this chain of intergenerational trauma continues to shackle the opportunities and diminish the health of First Nations People across North America.

Psychologists have documented the clinical effects of this trauma (see, for example. Duran et al. 1998). As anthropologists of motherhood, our concern is with the resulting climate of persistent trepidation that affects how Aboriginal women negotiate the care of their children in everyday life as well as in extreme circumstances, such as disaster and evacuation situations. Aboriginal parenting practices have indeed been indelibly affected by a colonial history of family separation and there is a “living history of violence, disruption, and trauma” (Downe, 2014, p. 22). It is with and against this history that Dene women, like other First Nations women, have fought to reclaim and restore their roles as central caregivers. It is also with this history of child apprehension and community disruption that the Wollaston Lake mothers, along with all community members, experienced the 2011 wildfire and mandated evacuation.

The Evacuation

In early June, over approximately 24 hours, all 1300 residents of Wollaston Lake were evacuated because the fire posed a critical threat. The circumstances of the evacuation were unique. A “perfect storm” of calamities hit: late ice breakup in the lake made both boat and snowmobile travel impossible; thick smoke and a damaged airport terminal prohibited airplane transportation; and because an election for Chief and Council was underway, there was no official local government to take control. As a result, the director of the local health facility made the call to evacuate. The local contingent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) assisted in issuing the call and ensuring compliance; and, the Canadian government sent in military helicopters to transport residents to Points North, a nearby mining depot, where military planes then airlifted residents to evacuation centers in the southern cities of Prince Albert and Saskatoon.

Great effort was made to ameliorate the effects of the unusual and complicating circumstances faced by Wollaston Lake residents but, as Julia Scharbach and James Waldram (2016, p. 59) explain, “once ordered, the evacuation took on a martial tone with residents not only encouraged and ultimately ordered to leave but also cajoled and allegedly even threatened with arrest if they did not heed the evacuation order.” According to most first-hand accounts, residents experienced fear and confusion amidst chaos and perceived coercion as they were rushed out of their homes. Requests for family accompaniment and for information about loved ones went unaddressed. In her presentation to the First Nations Emergency Management Forum in 2012, local official Mary Denechezhe (2012) stated that “everybody was traumatized” by the time that the community members returned to Wollaston Lake on June 10.

Our research was conducted over a six week period during the summer of 2012. We conducted in-depth and ethnographic interviews centered on residents’ experiences with all facets of the 2011 evacuation and return home. Active recruitment (door-to-door visits), as well as snowball sampling, resulted in a group of 59 participants: 52 were between the ages of 20 and 49 years; seven were Elders (over 60 years of age); 39 were women, 21 of whom were mothers. Based on the interview length and the extent of narrative elaboration, twenty interviews were selected for in-depth narrative analysis. Ten of these interviews were conducted with mothers, all of whom have lived exclusively in Wollaston Lake and who speak Dene as their first language. In discussing their roles as mothers, the women who participated in this research spoke first and foremost of their children but they also spoke to considerable length about the broader cultural ethic to care for children, Elders, and community members. They embraced their roles as Dene mothers, providing care and protection to all those in need.

What it Means to be “At Risk”

In media reports of disaster, mothers are often represented as symbols of all that is at risk when confronted by an environmental threat such as a fire or flood. In a CBC news report, for example, Caroline Hillier (2016) explains that, on Mothers’ Day in 2016, the mothers evacuated from Fort McMurray, Alberta, were not celebrating. They were “on duty as mothers in crisis,” worrying about their homes, their potentially lost income, and what the future holds for their children. Roberta Bell (2016) reports on a Fort McMurray mother who was over-charged by a commercial airline when she and her daughter finally returned to their home, raising concerns about the confusion and potential exploitation of evacuees. The images accompanying these kinds of stories are emotionally evocative. They depict one mother (and occasionally a father), embracing one or two young children. There is no doubt that media reports have great local significance: honouring the survivors and evacuees, recognizing exceptional generosity and volunteerism, and raising public awareness as well as much-needed relief funds. These images and stories, however, present us with one particular image of motherhood amidst risk. What realities of motherhood and mothering are consequently rendered relatively invisible? How are the Dene mothers from Wollaston Lake – many of whom have many children as well as grandchildren, nieces, nephews, not to mention older relatives and other community members who require their care – reflected in the one-mother/young-child dyad most frequently depicted in these public stories?

The gendered nature of disasters and their often disproportionately negative effects on women are well recognized (Grossman-Thompson, 2016). Prevailing literature on women and disasters helps to redress the simple and singular model of motherhood. Peek and Fothergill (2009), for example, explains that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that displaced over one million people from New Orleans and other coastal communities in Louisiana in 2005, child care responsibilities in emergency shelters fell primarily to women who worked cooperatively together to care for their own as well as others’ children. The collective approach to child- and family- care, however, is rarely represented in the media images of disaster mothering. This is more than a problem of rhetoric and representation. This has serious consequences when exclusionary and limited definitions of mothers and motherhood are operationalized through disaster-related evacuation protocols.

In Saskatchewan, community health officials are to maintain a priority list of vulnerable persons that is employed to determine the order of evacuation. In the case of the wildfire, this list includes children under two years of age and women in the third trimester of pregnancy. Evacuation protocols recognize in principle that all those deemed to fall within a category of vulnerability should be accompanied by caregivers and that families should stay together. However, these principles are rarely operationalized. When they are employed, Eurocentric understandings prevail and “family” is defined as smaller nuclear family groupings. Extended families are otherwise seen to be “made up of autonomous and loosely bound individuals inclined to act alone in their own best interests” (Scharbach & Waldram, 2016, p.66). This conflicts with the way family life is structured and experienced by the Hatchet Lake Densuline First Nation. As a result, Wollaston Lake mothers faced having to leave some of their children behind and abandon their other caregiving responsibilities during the evacuation. Given the history of child apprehension and given the extent to which Dene women have had to fight to reclaim and restore their cultural presence and power eroded through colonialism, leaving any children behind was a devastating prospect.

Almost all of the mothers interviewed were separated from more than one of their children amidst the evacuation procedures that involved a selective and narrow categorization of who was “at risk.” Anxiety and fear resulted. One mother, Michelle, explained that “They [the organizers] told me that, yeah, I could go with my youngest but I had to leave my oldest girl. I told them, ‘No! I’m not gonna’ leave my other girl.” The organizers rejected her pleas and, identifying Michelle and her younger daughter as being “at risk,” told her to get on the plane. After arriving at Points North, Michelle tried unsuccessfully to locate her older daughter. The organizers could not provide any information about the girl’s whereabouts. Michelle recalls waiting patiently – “there were at least three planes that got in [but] there was no sign of her” – while her fear and sense of “being lost” escalated. Michelle and her youngest child were then airlifted to Prince Albert but there was still no word of her seven-year-old daughter. After another three or four hours passed, Michelle finally heard that her daughter had been sent to Saskatoon without family accompaniment. Michelle’s case was not singular. Eight mothers with whom we worked shared similar experiences. In all these situations, a very restrictive category of “maternal risk” served to separate mothers from their children.

Frustration and fear were also associated with other family separations. For example, Catherine, her son, and her grandmother were evacuated to Prince Albert while her parents were evacuated to Saskatoon. As the oldest adult child in the family, Catherine held the responsibility to care for the senior generations as well as the children. There appeared to be no acknowledgment or accommodation of this caregiving role during the evacuation or at the evacuation center itself. At one point, Catherine left the evacuation center in Prince Albert to pick up some supplies for her family. When she returned, her elderly grandmother was gone. “I asked the Red Cross where they put her and they were like, ‘Oh, we’re sending her an hour and twenty minutes out of Prince Albert to a group home.” The organizers could not tell Catherine who was caring for or even accompanying her grandmother. Catherine and her grandmother were not seen as a family unit that should, in principle, be kept together in a disaster situation. Yet, culturally, Catherine and her grandmother were a close family and the separation from each other exacerbated the women’s already high levels of anxiety. Ultimately, Catherine’s concerns were substantiated. Her grandmother died in the Prince Albert group home.

Again, Catherine’s story is not unique. Family separation, a lack of recognition of caregiving responsibilities, and the withholding of information characterized the evacuation experiences of the Wollaston Lake mothers who were confronted and confused by a culturally inappropriate model of family and maternal responsibility. For Wollaston Lake First Nations women, the risks that they faced were not only from the fire but also from both the culturally inappropriate casting of their maternal responsibilities only in terms of their youngest children as well as the separation from other kin members who provide the connectedness and support needed in times of disaster. The risks that Wollaston Lake mothers faced were, ironically, the result of the official ways in which maternal risk was defined and operationalized. This, in turn, led to a community-wide redefinition of the disaster as being the evacuation itself, not the fire.

Redefining “Disaster”

“The way that the evacuation was taking place,” explained Jeffrey, alternating between the voice of a parent and an evacuation official, was: “‘Okay, this mother and her two babies are going to go on this plane’. ‘Well, what about my other kids? What about my ten-year-old kid that’s over here? What about my fifteen-year-old that’s over there?’ ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be taken care of!’ So they’re flown to Prince Albert, but their kids are flown to Saskatoon! No supervision! Nothing!” The disaster, as Jeffrey and other residents came to understand it, was not only the threat of the encroaching and uncontained forest fire, it was the evacuation and the separation of families, particularly mothers from children. Failing to consider the importance of Dene-defined family exacerbated the community members’ sense of vulnerability.

In addition to the splintering of families, the evacuation process was seen to be “a disaster” because of the vulnerability of youth to the urban environments where the evacuation centers were located. The safety of the teenagers who were separated from their families was a central concern. There were several media reports about the youth drinking in Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Wollaston Lake is a “dry reserve” where alcohol is not easily available and drinking is not tolerated. When some unsupervised youth had access to alcohol in the host cities, the partying and misbehavior drew media attention. Mothers therefore not only worried about the well-being of their children but they also expressed concerns about the reputation of the Wollaston Lake community given the media misrepresentation. Moreover, the mothers interviewed worried that cultural differences in parenting would render them vulnerable to public criticism. They feared that the youths’ behaviors reflected badly on them as caregivers and role models for their children. Given the history of state-sanctioned judgment of Aboriginal parents that led to the apprehension of children, this was (and is) a significant fear.

As Nicole Muir and Yvonne Bohr (2014) point out, mothering varies across First Nations but it generally contrasts with Euro-Canadian mothering in its emphasis on child autonomy, the involvement of extended kin, and type of discipline. Allowing children to make their own decisions in order to encourage independence, and then balancing that independence with emotional responsiveness and affection, are core values of Aboriginal motherhood. For Dene mothers, this is not neglectful, as it has often been portrayed by those unfamiliar with Aboriginal mothering. Instead, it is culturally appropriate parenting. The accusatory question – “Why don’t you control your children?” – that emerged through media reports of the trouble caused by youth drinking is, therefore, culturally inappropriate and misleading.

As noted earlier, great importance is placed on the support of extended family in Dene society. According to Cheah and Sheperd (2011), children’s perceived misbehavior is generally seen by Aboriginal mothers as an opportunity to collaborate with kin members to teach social values and rules in a non-confrontational way. Wollaston Lake mothers were therefore unfamiliar with the expectations that they were to step in and confront their children. The mothers with whom we worked felt both unfairly singled out as solely responsible for their children’s behavior and concerned that because of the behavior of some youths, the entire Wollaston Lake community was vulnerable to being seen negatively. The “disaster,” then, was not the threat of the fire but also the potential damage to the public image of their home, and dry, First Nations community.

Cultural Safety as a Key principle in Evacuation

An anthropological perspective on maternal risk and disaster requires us to consider individual and collective experience in both historical and cultural context. As Julia Scharbach and James Waldram (2016, p. 63) point out, “The propensity of the state to employ emergency response mechanisms without attention to relevant issues of indigeneity or the historical impacts of colonization often leads to conflict.” This is definitely evident in the experiences that Wollaston Lake mothers during the evacuation of 2011. Mothers’ separation from their children, an exclusionary and narrow definition of “risk” and “family,” no acknowledgment or accommodation of women’s broader caregiving responsibilities, and media misrepresentation of the community and youth drinking resulted in a lack of cultural safety for Wollaston Lake evacuees. Given Canada’s colonial history in which First Nations children were apprehended amidst allegations of parental neglect and abuse, the Wollaston Lake residents’ experiences of cultural vulnerability during the mandatory evacuation were entirely predictable.

The research on which this article is based clearly indicated that disaster evacuation policies in Canada, especially northern Canadian regions, would be much stronger if they were framed by principles of cultural safety. Cultural safety requires that intergroup power differentials be identified and addressed (Hart-Wasekeesikaw, 2009) so as to provide “a pathway to collaborative de-colonization” (Koptie, 2009, p. 41). In the response to the 2011 forest fire and the threat it posed to the Wollaston Lake community, this would involve: organizing evacuations around the value of extended kin and collective caregiving that are central to Aboriginal mothering practices; broadening the categories of risk to include risk to family unification; and working with media outlets and service providers in evacuation communities to avoid discriminatory representations and actions that exacerbate the effects of long-standing historical injustices faced by Aboriginal peoples. Adopting the principles of cultural safety in emergency responses to fire, flood and other similar threats could, therefore, help to avoid the situation encountered by Wollaston Lake mothers where the disaster was, ironically, not the encroaching fire but the efforts to keep them and their families safe.

This research contributes to the growing literature that documents the devastating effects of family separation. These effects include individualized stress and clinical anxiety, and all the challenges associated with these conditions. Beyond that, family separation can result in a collective trauma that reverberates throughout families and communities for generations. Mothers carry this burden of trauma in culturally specific ways that demand not only our scholarly attention but our advocacy as well.


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