National Newswatch

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he "won't spare a penny" to help fight the northern wildfires and support evacuees, but he isn't declaring a state of emergency.

Ford visited the wildfire command centre in Thunder Bay and met with evacuees and community leaders. He thanked the hundreds of firefighters, as well as other provinces and jurisdictions such as Wisconsin and Mexico, who have sent resources to help.

Both the size and number of wildfires burning across northern Ontario are substantially higher than in an average year, and the blazes have forced more than 3,000 people from their homes on several First Nations. Thousands more may have to be displaced.

On Wednesday, 23 logistics personnel from Australia arrived to help.

First Nation leaders have called on Ontario to declare a state of emergency over the situation, but Ford suggested doing so wouldn't provide additional help.

"I think there’s a little confusion (over) what a state of emergency is," he said. "It’s not going to add any more resources. It’s basically the province coming in, taking over everything."

Ford said he believes in working in collaboration with First Nations and municipalities.

"The only difference (with a state of emergency) is the province will come in and say, 'You can’t go down this road,'" Ford said. "There’s already emergency orders put in place, so it’s not holding back any resources. We’ll put all the resources we have. I won’t spare a penny."

Government officials have said the legal conditions have not been met to declare a state of emergency, which include a lack of available resources to support the crisis.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said that a state of emergency would eliminate barriers and give the province the authority to access more accommodations, resources and supports, such as access to health-care and mental health services for evacuees while they are away from home.

In his daily calls with senior provincial and federal officials, they say they don't have the manpower or equipment to fight the fires, Fiddler said.

"(The government's) response again today was if they were to issue an emergency declaration that would just mean more power or more authority and not necessarily resources," he said.

"Well, that’s not really true. I think a state of emergency would just take away all those bureaucratic hurdles that are still very much there."

Pikangikum is waiting to evacuate 1,300 people but there is nowhere to accommodate them, he said.

Fiddler worries that if more people need to leave, there will be very few options in terms of where they will have a bed and wraparound supports.

"Show us the plan. What does that plan look like in the long term?" he said.

"In the long-range forecast there is very little rain for the next few weeks, so we’re looking at potentially being in this situation until September. Right now the current model is not sustainable."

Ford said the province is looking at more accommodations in the Greater Toronto Area, if evacuees are willing to travel that far.

Ruth Wassaykeesic, her partner and five children were evacuated from Poplar Hill First Nation to Thunder Bay with little time to pack their essentials.

"I was sitting at home looking at everything in my home, like all the children’s art and everything, wondering if we’ll be able to see our home again,” she said. “But all the material things didn’t really matter to me … I’m hoping we’ll be able to go home.”

For Wassaykeesic, the culture shock of moving to a large city has been difficult to adjust to because Poplar Hill is a fly-in community that has been in full lockdown since March 2020. She and her children try to keep busy in their rooms with toys for the younger ones and electronics for her teenagers, waiting to hear when they can go back.

“I don’t want to go home until I know that it’s safe for me to go home with my children,” she said.

The NDP has also called for a state of emergency and for the 1,300 people in Pikangikum to be evacuated immediately.

"How could the provincial government abandon these 1,300 souls, like they don’t matter?" said Sol Mamakwa, who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong.

"Doug Ford should be moving heaven and earth to get those people airlifted to safety, and put the resources in place to give them a safe place, where they can access medical care and temporary supports.”

- with files from Elena De Luigi

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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