Canada is facing the most treacherous wildfire season in its history, and as the smoky skies blanketing Ottawa this past weekend have proven, it’s only going to intensify as the summer continues. Little fires everywhere have manifested into big catastrophes throughout the country, and the effects have been felt in the United States. But those most affected by the wildfires—primarily Indigenous people—are being completely overlooked as some Canadian politicians seek to downplay not only the current devastation but also the likelihood of future extreme weather events caused by a warming planet.
According to Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, as of June 22 there are about 416 active wildfires, with 213 deemed “out of control.” The system’s monthly and seasonal maps forecasted well above average risk predictions for June, and July is expected to be even worse. It seems as if, according to the Canadian government website, the whole country is on fire and the flames are not about to subside any time soon.
Although wildfires are not new to Canadians, the intensity of these fires has grown over the years. Thus far, the seasonal wildfire occurrence exceeds the 10-year average by 584, while the seasonal area burned is more than 13 times the 10-year average. According to Public Safety Canada, the area ablaze from wildland fires “has more than doubled since the 1970s. It is predicted that, by 2100, the area burned could double again.”
The natural question is, “Why?”
Forest fires can be ignited through human activity or lightning; however, the issue is not how the fires start, since, as CBC reports, “the number of human-caused fires is going down.” The problem, instead, is the spread. Drier, hotter conditions are fueling the rise in the acreage of land affected. As are lightning-induced fires, as was the case with the fires in Alberta, which were the first major fires of the year. In a June 2017 article for Nature, scientists emphasized the importance of this trend: “We find that lightning ignitions have increased since 1975, and that…events [in 2014 and 2015] coincided with a record number of lightning ignitions and exceptionally high levels of burning near the northern treeline.” And this increase is exacerbated by climate change.
Dr. Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist from Thompson Rivers University and the University of Alberta, puts it plainly when he says that “the observed increases in area burned in Canada during the last 4 decades is the result of human-induced climate change.” Climate models predict that higher temperatures due to climate change will cause more warming at higher altitudes and less precipitation in the summer. “It appears that temperature is the most important predictor of area burned in Canada with warmer temperatures associated with increased area burned.” As Flannigan warns, we are feeling the effects of climate change and it will only get worse.
Global environmental disasters disproportionately affect communities of color. In Canada, environmental racism, or dispossession of mainly racialized communities of the right to lives of environmental quality comparable to their white counterparts, is more likely to be experienced by Indigenous and Black communities. Boil-water advisories are all too common in Indigenous communities (some have been in place for longer than 20 years), limiting their ability to access clean and safe drinking water. When Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, he vowed to end all long-term drinking water advisories, but many remain.
According to Public Safety, “Indigenous peoples are 30% more likely to be impacted by wildland fires compared to non-Indigenous Canadians.” And that is structural, since many Indigenous people were forced by the government into reserves, and some of those areas are vulnerable to wildfires. As explained in a 2021 paper in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research: “Most wildland fire-related evacuations occur in sparsely populated boreal regions, where wildland fires are the most active.” These areas are populated by reserves where “the percentage of people at risk in on-reserve First Nations communities is nearly three times higher,” at 32 percent, than that of non-Indigenous people living near boreal regions, at 12 percent, as reported by The Narwal. All in all, this could affect more than 4 million people across Canada.
The government-imposed Indian Act controls the movement of Indigenous peoples across Canada. In Section 18(1) of the 1876 law, “Reserves are held by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of the respective bands for which they were set apart, and subject to this Act and to the terms of any treaty or surrender, the Governor in Council may determine whether any purpose for which lands in a reserve are used or are to be used is for the use and benefit of the band.” This is the settler-colonial state in action, one that perpetuates a system of power that dispossesses Indigenous people of their lands through structural and systemic methods of oppression that leads to the repression and genocide of Indigenous people.
Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet that has been devastated by the Alberta wildfires, has a population of 798, consisting of Cree and Dene First Nations and Métis people. Patty Hajdu, Minister of Indigenous Services, noted that 17 Indigenous communities remain affected and 13 have been evacuated, including 6,500 people. Evacuations come as communities are already impacted by a lack of health services and infrastructure, as well as experiencing vulnerabilities as a result of food insecurity. Beyond the immediate impacts, however, Indigenous people are losing their critical infrastructure such as hunting cabins that are necessary for secure food supply and cultural livelihood.
Canada’s oil and gas industry, which operates mainly in Alberta and British Columbia, is the largest industrial pollutant in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Alberta is a conservative province that leans right, politically and economically. Energy politics, usually as it pertains to building new pipelines like the now-defunct Keystone XL Pipeline project, is a regional factor in national politics. However, not even oil and gas companies have escaped the ravages of these fires. As they continue to spread, the industry has responded by cutting production. This means that the price of Canadian crude oil has risen amid an affordability crisis that is already squeezing consumers.
The federal government and the opposition, at first, responded to the realities of the multitude of threats posed by a climate-change-induced wildfire season along sharp partisan lines. Instead of turning to address the crisis at hand, Canada’s official opposition used the crucial time to fight the Liberals’ budget bill, insisting that they cut planned carbon tax increases while wildfires rage across the country. The opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre, even launched a laughable filibuster in which he knew the chances of stopping the budget bill were nil but wasted precious time in doing so. For a time, Parliament seemed to be engaging in schoolyard antics and bickering while the country burned.
However, the feds eventually got their act together. On June 22, Natural Resource Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and US Ambassador to Canada David L. Cohen came to an agreement, as reported by CBC, “meant to improve cross-border cooperation on wildfires.” The deal includes more responsive and cooperative processes and more information-sharing, including access to the more sophisticated US satellite data for identifying fires.
In contrast, during the Alberta election, which was held on May 29, even though Premier Danielle Smith invoked a state of emergency as the province burned during a contentious election, the environment and climate change took a back seat in the center-left’s New Democratic Party (NDP) campaign. It is always a tightrope for a (presumably) left-wing party in Alberta to discuss climate change in oil-and-gas-friendly Alberta, and Rachel Notley, head of the Alberta NDP, made a tactical decision to move to the center-right in order to win seats in the hotly contested city of Calgary, where much of the oil and gas industry is headquartered.
In Ontario, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are outright denying the impact of climate change on the wildfires. Responding to NDP leader Marit Stiles’s June 7 question about climate change’s impact, Ford retorted, “I’m actually in shock that the Leader of the Opposition is politicizing wildfires.” Apparently, a warming climate that negatively impacts everyone on the planet is a partisan issue in Canada, as it is in the United States. Never mind that it seems as though Ford’s government cut funding for forest firefighting services. While the minister of natural resources and forestry disputes this claim, the amount set aside in the Ontario budget for 2021–22 was $237 million, however the following years look sparse: $100 million for 2022–23 and $135 million is 2023–24. And that is clearly not enough. Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles “raised concerns that Ontario is short 50 firefighting crews this year,” according to CBC, after the province was short 23 crews last year. What is clear, though, is that libertarian beliefs about small government are incongruent with the realities on the ground, and Canadians are seeing the horrifying effects of ideologically based responses in real time.