Naicatchewenin recognizes contributions during forest fire

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer
kkellar@fortfrances.com

Naicatchewenin First Nation has recognized the efforts of individuals and organizations who helped the community face the threat of a wildfire this summer.

During a ceremony which also included the official opening and name reveal of the First Nation’s new health centre, Naicatchewenin chief Wayne Smith took a few moments to recognize, thank, and gift a plaque to a handful of people who worked within and with the community during the summer of 2021 when the fire designated FOR47 threatened the community located roughly 30 kilometres north of Devlin.

Smith had nearly a dozen plaques to hand out during the ceremony, each bearing an inscription from American author Melody Beattie that read, in part, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” Smith said the quote was particularly relevant for the situation.

The first in-person plaque was given to the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Bill Payne. Smith said the community was grateful to Payne for working to update the community on the size and heading of the fire, taking time to create videos on YouTube to keep band members informed.

“People understood what was happening out there,” Smith said.

“[Payne] calmed a lot of nerves down, a lot of the community felt safe by the information they got from the MNRF and Bill as a representative.”

Payne took a moment to speak on the summer’s fire, noting that the community itself went ‘above and beyond’ the ministry’s expectations of them.

“Lots of times in the program I have people coming to me when we have incidents like this happen saying ‘I need, I need, I need,'” Payne said.

“You guys came to me with solutions to my problems. It was such fresh air to see something like that, right from getting our food from here, our fuel, the dump pick-up. Everyone I worked with in the whole community went well above and beyond.”

Payne also gifted Smith with a gratitude plaque of his own, echoing his words of thanks for the help the community provided while the fire was being dealt with.

Smith next presented a plaque to Nathaniel Councillor, a Naicatchewenin First Nation community member who he said ‘took up the responsibility of helping out.’

“[Councillor came up] and did a lot of the security work while the community members were evacuated because it was pretty quiet here,” Smith said.

“He continued to assist in terms of communication.”

Councillor said the recognition was an unexpected honour.

“It takes a lotto have the bravery and courage to step up and wanting to help out your community without expecting anything back,” Councillor said, extending his own thanks to the fire chief and other individuals who stepped up to help out.

“I’m grateful for the services that were provided from outside the community as well, grateful for the resources we were able to utilize as well. It’s a beautiful community. I’m proud and grateful it wasn’t more devastating than it really was.”

Next to be congratulated was Riel Councillor, who shared his experience from the day the fire broke out and threatened the community.

“It caught us all off guard,” Councillor recalled.

“We were all scared right way. Something deep down said, ‘wait, I’m part of this team who train for things like this.’ I calmed my nerves and put the community there first, thought, ‘let’s worry about the people, let’s protect them.’ That day I put the community first.”

Smith next acknowledged Bob Morrison, someone who he said has been working with the community for several years at the administration level.

“He loves helping out, he loves volunteering for basically anything that has to do with urgent situations, such as fires, ambulances, what have you,” Smith said of Morrison.

For his part, Morrison thanked the chief and community for the recognition, but also extended his gratitude to the teams he worked with, along with outside resources to help protect the area.

“Some are ready and willing to give their lives to protect our people, and every time that pager goes off that’s what we do, that’s the risk we take. It’s a service, something that a lot of people can’t do. We have a good team here, a lot of compassionate, understanding people. We set our differences aside and things get done.”

The final in-person plaque that Smith gave out during the ceremony went to Greg Allan, the emergency management coordinator at Pwi-Di-Goo-Zing Ne-Yaa-Zhing Advisory Services, who Smith said wasted no time in responding to assist the community with the evacuation process.

“I remember some of the calls we did with the various ministries were late, late at night, and [Allan] was on there,” Smith said.

“He did what he needed to do. Early mornings he would be in the community, he’d bring in stuff. He was there, and it really made our job a lot easier, having an individual like that.”

Allan accepted the plaque and in turn thanked the community for the work that they themselves did to make the entire emergency process run more smoothly.

“I don’t know if you realize, but your community did something that most communities don’t do,” Allan said.

“You did this pretty much on your own. typically on a call like this, an evacuation, [Indigenous Services Canada] is involved, [Provincial emergency Operations Centre] is involved, other agencies are involved, and what you did was so impressive. It doesn’t happen this way, and be proud of yourselves that as a community you took this whole endeavour on your own, and did it on your own pretty much. My hat goes off to everybody here that was involved with that.”

Among those who did not or weren’t able to attend the ceremony were Fort Frances Tribal Area Health Services and the Super 8 motel, along with a few other community members. Smith noted that the Super 8 motel provided rooms for the band members as they were displaced by the fire, telling those assembled that the staff were “really good” to them, even with some kids and adults getting “out of hand.”

“They put up with us and they worked with us in accommodating our members when they needed help,” Smith said.