How some First Nations in Ontario’s northwest are overcoming the effects of climate change

Some First Nation leaders in northwestern Ontario are seeing the effects of climate change in their region — including more widespread forest fires and shorter winter roads season — and taking steps to try to adapt.

They spoke to CBC in the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which was released Feb. 28 and details the impact of global warming worldwide. 

Temperatures across Ontario’s northwest are projected to rise by two degrees above 2005 levels by 2050, and communities in the westernmost parts of the province could see them climb by close to 2.5 degrees, according to data compiled by the Climate Atlas of Canada. Precipitation will rise by six to seven per cent per year over 2005 levels.

“With every degree rise in temperature, that means that the air can carry seven per cent more water vapour,” said Geneva Kejick, the climate specialist for Grand Council Treaty No. 3.

“For the area I’m in, which is Kenora, Ont., we’ve definitely had a lot more snow. And the frequency of heavier snowfall has increased. So it’s not like it’s been consistent. All winter, it’s been several episodes of 15-centimetre days.”

Traditional foods, medicines disappearing

Some of those winter snowfalls can knock out services to First Nations for multiple days, necessitating evacuation, Kejick said. 

The run-off from the extra snow could lead to salt and chemicals from roads washing into lakes and other bodies of water, meaning communities need good drainage and should consider diverting run-off to artificial lakes or ponds, she said.

An increase in evapotranspiration — the loss of water through evaporation and absorption by plants — means the forest floor is also drier in summer, contributing to forest fire risk, Kejick added.

In addition, communities are feeling the effects of climate change through reduced availability of traditional foods, such as wild rice, berries and traditional meats, she said. 

“There are certain medicines that it’s hard to find for some reason,” said David Meekis, a band councillor from Deer Lake First Nation. 

Protecting communities from forest fires

The temperature of the water around Deer Lake also appears to be warming, he said, causing fish that would normally be near the surface in the spring to seek refuge in deeper water. 

“Some people still rely on traditional food and medicine, so if you can’t find it then that means they don’t get it at that time,” Meekis said.  “The elders … would rather have more traditional foods, but if you can’t provide it, then that affects them as well. It’s almost like a comfort food.”

Deer Lake was one of six First Nation communities evacuated last year due to nearby forest fires.

When residents returned home, Meekis said community leaders discussed a proposal to build a fire break around the community, an area of cleared land that helps prevent wildfire from spreading.

“The thing is funding,” he said, “and also, you have to have the proper equipment to do a proper fire break.”

Residents from Deer Lake First Nation wait for a plane to take them to southern Ontario during the summer of 2021. The community was evacuated due to forest fire activity. (Breanne Meekis)

Meekis said that would be complicated in Deer Lake because the terrain around the community is a mixture of exposed bedrock and muskeg. 

Some communities are building fire breaks, Kejick said.  

She’s also working on trying to reduce the number of fire-related evacuations altogether by talking to communities and government about creating safe centres — buildings with powerful air purifiers that can keep vulnerable community members safe from the harmful effects of smoke.  

Currently, Treaty No. 3 has 300 air purifiers that it loans out upon request to individuals affected by forest fire smoke, she said. But safe centres are a work in progress.

Kejick said safe centres could also be air conditioned, to provide an escape from the heat during extremely hot days and tropical nights, the number of which is also projected to increase substantially over the next 30 years.  

Winter roads melting

Warming temperatures that can increase the risk of heat and summer wildfires have also led to well-documented problems with winter roads that fly-in First Nations rely on to transport heavy shipments of fuel, building materials, equipment and other supplies over a network of frozen lakes. 

While the winter of 2022 has been more consistently cold, First Nations such as Deer Lake and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug found themselves in a race against time over the past two years, trying to truck in supplies before warm weather rendered the road conditions too dangerous to continue. 

“It made us look at better options of little detours here and there from creeks [and] trying to access a bridge too,” said KI Chief Donny Morris. 

Specifically, Morris last year requested funding from the government for a bridge over the Ashweig River, he said. 

He added he hopes to receive approval and have the bridge in place for next year’s road season.

Donny Morris, chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, says he’s trying to obtain funding for a bridge over the Ashweig River due to problems getting their winter road to freeze properly. (Youtube)

Meekis said his community too has struggled with winter road conditions, especially since their road relies on more frozen lakes than some other communities’.  

Officials have considered moving the road onto high ground, but the same exposed bedrock and muskeg terrain that would make it challenging to build a fire break would also make it difficult to move the road, he said.

While such major projects may not be doable for Deer Lake right now, Meekis sees a desire among young people in his community to do more for the environment, and the First Nation will pilot a new recycling program when its new landfill opens in the fall.

“They’re bringing in those sea cans, and so they’ll be at the landfill site,” he said. 

“They’ll have five different ones.  One will be just for like batteries, car batteries. Another one will be for electronics. One’s supposed to be for certain plastics. … That’s something we started but it will be up to the people to follow through. … I hope the older people kind of understand what it’s meant for and actually utilize it.”

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