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Thunder Bay won’t host First Nations evacuees

City says it’s unable to help, with resources already strained by COVID-19 pandemic
Pikangikum evacuation
Pikangikum First Nation arrive at the Thunder Bay International Airport on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. (Matt Vis,

THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay says it cannot help First Nations in the event of flood- or forest fire-related evacuations this year.

City manager Norm Gale told Tbnewswatch that with municipal resources already straining in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city simply doesn’t have the capacity to support evacuees.

“There’s a lot of work that goes behind hosting an evacuation,” Gale said. “People require support – cultural, educational, recreational, and basic necessities.”

“We are in extreme circumstances now in a worldwide emergency, and the city is barely to keep up with necessary functions. We’ve already scaled back important services people in the city rely on.”

Thunder Bay regularly plays host to evacuees from across the region through the spring, summer, and fall. Last year, the city welcomed over 1,000 evacuees from Pikangikum First Nation due to wildfires, and hundreds from Bearskin Lake due to flooding.

It seems First Nations that are forced to evacuate will face more limited options this year, as municipalities across Ontario grapple with COVID-19. The town of Kapuskasing announced last week it would not host evacuees.

Gale said the city had not yet received any requests from First Nations, but that the province had already begun looking for host communities in anticipation of a possible evacuation in Kashechewan First Nation, which faces a flood risk in the coming weeks.

Leaders in the community have called on the federal government to fund alternate arrangements that could include tents and other temporary shelters, saying community members are concerned an evacuation could spread the coronavirus into the community.

Gale said Thunder Bay’s decision reflected the unfortunate realities of the COVID-19 crisis, and not an unwillingness to help its northern neighbours.

“Thunder Bay has proven itself to be a welcoming community,” he said. “To my knowledge, we have never said no to an evacuation. While municipalities across the province have said no, we haven’t.”