Posted:19 June 2019
Author: Lori St.Cyr, Community Learning Network
As the fires rage in Northern Alberta the memories, emotions, thoughts and feelings find their way back to my heart and mind. When the fires were burning in our neighbouring community of Slave Lake in 2011, my daughter and I decided we needed to help. We spent up to 16 hours a day volunteering our time at the evacuation center in my home town of High Prairie. We helped everyone that came through the door. We only hoped to bring some comfort and kindness to those who seemed so lost, worried and frightened. Trying to always have a kind word or smile, we would do our best to reassure the people that were losing so much.
Many of the displaced people I had a direct connection with, either through the work I did or through my personal life. We would hear rumors about what was burning, which homes were lost. People were worried about pets, and loved ones. The trauma that we would see and deal with on a daily basis was a lot to carry.
The information that is given out at the evacuation centers is constant and there is so much information. Sheets and sheets of papers - absolute information overload. It was overwhelming to see what people had to wade through to find out information.
Then when the fires were burning in Fort McMurray, like most people I had family working and living there. The same emotions, thoughts and feelings surfaced, without warning, just like our learners’ memories of trauma can be triggered without warning or notice. As coordinators and facilitators we need to always be mindful of the things we are putting in our spaces.
Without me even realizing, I had feelings of trauma and worry. With me wanting to help, I had myself taken on some of the same fears and emotions of the very people I was there to help. I think as we are supporting learners in a safe environment we must be aware of what we are taking on ourselves.
I made a connection with a Dene Lady. She was carrying her community on her back. Right from day one she was organizing, connecting her people with information, caring for their well being, while still trying to carry her own family. I saw amazing strength in this lady. I see the same strength in the CALP coordinators and facilitators. The CALPs I visit are doing very much the same as this Dene Lady. They are connecting community with information, caring for the well being of the learners by having safe and welcoming spaces, organizing programs to fit the needs of the learner and most importantly making a difference in other’s lives.
In times of trauma and disaster, information comes in many forms such as television, apps, alerts, radio, social media and information passed down. As I volunteered at the evacuation site the information was pouring in fast, faster than anyone could process. Rumors floated like stars in the sky. Whispers of homes burning, worried voices, concern for animals and loved ones. Documents and documents of what to do if your home is insured, if you have pets left behind, things to do in the community, maps, updates of where the fires were, mental health providers and so much more information.
Looking at this wall of information for me was overwhelming. Me - who could go home to my own bed each evening after volunteering, me - who was not displaced, me - who was not worrying about my home burning, my community burning. I sat there and read and reread information to pass it on to those who needed to know. I sat and thought about our learners, many who were probably in the midst of this mass information overload. How were they processing information? How can I help these people, what can I do to help ease the process of information?
As I spent my time hoping to provide some comfort, information and kindness, I saw many people from many walks of life. These people could be anyone, just like our learners in our CALPs. These peoples’ journey to safety brought them to my community. Only one of many communities that were safe zones for those in need. Much like our CALP sites which should always be sites of safety, kindness, comfort and information.
The Red Cross in their wisdom brought in 500 cots to be set-up if needed. We sat and looked at these boxes of cots and blankets for many evenings. Seeing many faces of many different ethnicities coming in each day. I was fortunate to spend my time with an elder from the area that was also volunteering her time. She is elder, a mental health worker, residential school survivor, mother and grandmother. This elder shared her worry and fears for the people we were seeing each day. The biggest worry was re-traumatizing people, more specifically those that were in Residential school. Those cots and blankets almost took on a spirit of their own. I would have never thought those items could be a trigger. This Elder in her wisdom shared her worries with me. How will it look if the cots are set up in this large hockey arena?
One night late after supper we heard another community was being evacuated. We may get as many as 600 more evacuees. With not many hotel rooms left , that meant the cots would now be set up. This Elder’s worry now became a reality. I have never in my life seen through the eyes of an Elder in such a way that was so over whelming. My heart broke when this Elder said to me, “This is what it looked like in Residential schools, the cots were all set up in rows, no walls. Our blanket was folded at the end of the bed. Just like this.” There was no pillow, nothing that would bring comfort to anyone. It was just a space to put bodies. My heart broke for my people, my ancestors, all those that lived through Residential schools. I have heard many Elders speak about their experience in Residential schools but never have I had such a visual of what that first day would have looked like to Indian children who were removed from a place of love and placed in a place of unknown. Seeing the cots set up in rows with only that folded blanket was heart breaking. Thinking about 500 children that would have seen a very similar site not so many years ago touched my very soul. I would have never thought of the Residential school survivors and the possibility of re-traumatizing if I had not taken the time to listen and speak with this Elder.
"I see you, I don’t know your name but I feel I know you. We have seen each other for 7 days, we have exchanged words of greetings and kindness. I see you carrying your community, your family, your culture. I feel a connection to this Dene warrior woman whose name I don’t know. I know you are a stranger to me but I also know we are connected. I know because I feel the compassion, kindness, and strength you carry with you for your people. I feel your need to smudge and ground yourself as you carry your people in this time of worry, sorrow, loss and hope. I see you, my spirit knows your spirit. I know our ancestors are walking together. I know this because my spirit knows this. We are connected. I am grateful that our spirits know each other. I am grateful I can hear the ancestors’ words of guidance. I see you."
Lori St. Cyr, CLN
Metis and Indigenous Liaison