Pamela Downe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She is a medical and feminist anthropologist, and is the 2018-19 President of the Canadian Anthropology Society.
Julia Scharbach holds a Master of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She is a policy analyst with the Government of Ontario and has expertise in disaster-relief policies and protocols.
James Waldram is a Professor in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He is a medical and environmental anthropologist, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Wildfires in northern regions of Canada displace thousands of community residents every year. Although there are well established protocols for evacuation, attention to, and accommodations for the experiences and needs of mothers who juggle multiple demands as they respond to the threat of wildfires are absent. This article is based on an ethnographic study in Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, home to the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation of Canada. We explore the experiences of Aboriginal mothers who were among the 1,300 residents forced to evacuate their homes in 2011 as an uncontained wildfire encroached on their community. We argue that the Dene mothers with whom we worked defined the “disaster” less in terms of the threatening fire and more in terms of the separation from children and other family members that occurred during the evacuation. The mothers’ anxiety and fear were escalated when media misrepresentations of adolescent evacuees reflected badly on the community of Wollaston Lake as well as on their culturally distinct competencies as mothers. Of course, historical context is critically important. Aboriginal communities were traumatically affected by over 100 years of state-led apprehension of children into the Canadian residential school system which aimed to sever ties between Aboriginal children and their families. The legacy and trauma of the residential school system frame the experiences of Aboriginal mothers who are forced to leave some children behind during government-run evacuations. Therefore, we ultimately call for the implementation of culturally safe protocols that respect the realities of Aboriginal mothering and motherhood.