It’s been said that every cloud has a silver lining. This is certainly the case when it comes to the state of emergency that was declared in Nemaska on May 26th. From within the billowing smoke that threatened the community, a story emerged of Crees helping themselves and each other. The recent emergency was a true test of resources and organizational skills, a test that the community passed with flying colours.
The evacuation of Nemaska was a group effort that involved no less than four neighbouring communities. Evacuees were taken to Waskaganish and Mistissini in vehicles that were provided by those communities along with Eastmain. Chisasibi was also at the ready, with a bus held on standby at kilometer 381, in case it was needed.
Organizers were more than pleased with the response of everyone that got involved. They were also understandably proud of the way the communities took responsibility for the emergency at hand. “All this was done internally,” said Nemaska’s deputy chief Matthew Swallow. “We did things right here with the people we have and the other communities responded right away.”
Brenda Rose Jolly, one of the evacuees who was taken to Mistissini, assisted in the effort to remove everyone to safety. “We (she and Beatrice Trapper) made transportation lists,” said Brenda Rose. “We had to leave at 3:00 a.m. and it was very stressful, especially with the children and elders. We were very tired and it was stuffy in the bus.” One bus, catering to people with health problems, left Nemaska at midnight. Brenda’s group, on a second bus with children and their parents, finally made it to Mistissini at eight o’clock on Sunday morning and spent that night in the neighbouring community. “They provided us with good hospitality,” added Brenda Rose. She estimated that some 50 households in Mistissini provided shelter for the weary evacuees, who were able to make the return trip to Nemaska late Monday afternoon.
Waskaganish councillor William T. Hester was also involved in the evacuation operation. “It was a good response from the community,” said Hester, who welcomed four evacuees into his home when they arrived at 3:00 a.m. “Most of the people either had relatives or close acquaintances here.” Many reunions between family members and close friends took place under these trying circumstances.
With road access into Waskaganish being such a recent development, a road evacuation to the community would have been impossible in the past, but the people of Waskaganish had their school buses at the ready and were able to play their part in the unfolding drama. At one point, the smoke on the road from Nemaska was so thick that some of the vehicles had to be directed to Mistissini instead.
All in all, the operation was deemed a success. Level heads prevailed throughout, and, most importantly, neighbouring communities demonstrated their generosity and care by jumping into the effort without hesitation. “The people who received our people in the different communities were very helpful and made our evacuees very comfortable,” said Matthew Wapachee, director of public safety for Nemaska. “It was a great example of Crees helping Crees.”