A small group of evacuees from the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation due to a wildfire risk are marching hundreds of miles to their community to protest the treatment they say they have received from the Canadian Red Cross.
The group of seven began the 625-kilometre march northwest from Winnipeg to The Pas along Highway 6 on Friday and vowed to continue in hopes of raising awareness of their plight.
“We believe we can do it,” Edward Bear said in a roadside interview near the community of Moosehorn, about 200 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg.
“I believe we can succeed without the services of these people if our leaders could stand up and support us,” Bear said.
Bear and other members of the group said they were abused. Travis Bighetty told CBC that a hotel they were placed in was infested with cockroaches, bedbugs and rodents.
Julianne (Betty) Dumas said children are locked up doing nothing. She thinks the fire danger in the community has diminished to the point that people may be starting to return.
“We would like our children to be brought home,” Dumas said. “I sat in a room for three days, and all I heard was crying. All my grandchildren, different grandchildren were crying. I was waiting for a room. they’re going to bed.”
Dumas said she thought the Red Cross was doing its best, but ultimately felt disrespected.
At a news conference on Friday, a First Nation emergency measures official said some of the housing provided to evacuees was unacceptable. Kaitlynn Brightnose said some rooms had cockroaches, used syringes and mold. Others appeared to have dried blood on the floor.
Advocating for better treatment from the Red Cross went nowhere, Brightnose said. When she asked for community members to be moved to other hotels where she heard there were empty rooms, Brightnose said the Canadian Red Cross told her there would not be possible to move them all to a new hotel.
Evacuations from Mathias Colomb, located about 700 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg, began July 14 as a large wildfire encroached and sent plumes of smoke into the remote community. About 2,000 people have been removed from the community.
Asked about the complaints raised by those walking, a spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross said in an emailed statement on Sunday that the evacuees had had a traumatic experience, reiterating the agency’s response to inquiries from CBC on Friday.
“Being hundreds of miles from home and not knowing when they will be returning home is incredibly stressful. Our team wants to provide the best possible support to community members while they are away from home,” said the spokesperson, Laura Ellis.
In addition to the Mathias Colomb evacuees, the organization is also supporting 1,500 Peguis First Nation residents who were displaced in May due to widespread flooding in their community.
“The consistent hotel space in Winnipeg that the Red Cross has available for this response is packed,” Ellis said. The organization has set up a safe haven at the University of Winnipeg that is clean and safe, she said. Its use has been proposed for those dealing with unsuitable hotel rooms for which there is no replacement.
“When members of the community raised concerns about the condition of their hotel rooms, we offered them access to the shelter due to the lack of available hotel accommodations. other hotel rooms for those people, but until then we have space available,” Ellis said.
WATCH | Wildfires cause First Nation to evacuate in northern Manitoba: