It looks like the start of a long hot summer this year. Many people up north are happy to see the warm weather after having to deal with a cold winter. Although many people along the James Bay coast prefer the snow and ice to the mosquitoes and black flies, the warm, sunny weather allows people more opportunities to spend time with family and friends. Unfortunately, with clear skies and a blistering sun we are also faced with danger.
My community of Attawapiskat has dealt with a few distant forest fires that burned hundreds of acres of land. We have never had a direct threat of a forest fire in the community. In the damp and water retaining muskeg the forests remain healthy and vibrant and manage to withstand most fires. It is a different story with remote northern communities west of James Bay towards the northwestern portion of Ontario. Many remote First Nation communities in this area are located amidst beautiful old forests set among rocky landscapes with sand, gravel and little protective muskeg. These communities have to deal with the danger of forest fires every year.
To protect the land and these communities, forest fire fighting companies are employed by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). This work has also provided many First Nation people with much needed employment in northern Ontario. I have several relatives in my own community who have trained and worked as forest fire fighters in the past. They have related stories of working hard in extremely difficult situations and having to do their jobs in a short period of time. When they fought fires, they were transported by canoe as closely and safely to the fire as possible and then they walked through forest, muskeg and mud in the summer heat while carrying heavy equipment to fight the fire. Their work usually began early in the morning and ran until late in the evening with little rest.
Most of the time these workers were employed by fire fighting companies for short periods of time. They worked with other seasoned forest fire fighters from nearby communities or from cities and towns down south.
Recently, several First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario banded to together to create their very own forest fire company called Aatawehike Fire Services. This company was established to deal with the seasonal danger their communities faced as well as to provide much needed employment opportunities to their members. The company is owned and operated by the eight First Nation communities of Deer Lake, Bearskin Lake, Kingfisher, Webequie, Neskantaga, Nibinamik, Aroland and Eabametoong.
In early 2002, individuals such as Bruce Visitor and Levi Sofea worked together to bring these communities into a group and develop the company. Just before the forest fire season started in the spring of 2002, the company was incorporated and soon after trained and employed numerous First Nation members from their community. The new fire services company received help in setting up from Mamo-Wichi-Hetiwin Employment & Training
to train new fire fighting crews in their communities to become qualified forest fire fighters.
The company has also provided a cost effective solution for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). Many First Nation people are hired through the company and this has resulted in better cost efficiency for the MNR mostly due to the fact that the First Nation fire fighters are handily based in remote locations where these fires occur frequently. Previously, outside companies were hired to transport trained fire fighters from southern cities or towns by bus or plane to these remote locations of the province at great expense to the respective company and to the MNR.
More and more I see my people taking advantage of training and employment initiatives to create opportunities for meaningful work. This happens because people like Levi and Bruce show commitment and dedication in coming up with ideas and turn them into reality. Meegwetch to them for making some dreams come true.