‘Everything is gone’: The fire that changed Paddle Prairie Metis Settlements

Les Nooskey walks down a path outside Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement towards the hunting ground that he has used for years.

The trees are gone and the only thing left are black stumps.

“The last time I trapped, I got 28 marten, that’s worth over 3,000 bucks. Now everything is gone,” he said.


Perspectives on Metis Settlements in Alberta | Explore the series


In May of 2019, a massive fire destroyed almost half of the land in his community.

Fifteen homes were destroyed, but an even bigger loss was the destruction of their hunting grounds and lumber.

“You don’t hear a bird,” he said.

Paddle Prairie

(Les Nooskey stands in the spot where his house once stood in Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement. Photo: Chris Stewart/APTN)

He lost his house and way of life.

“It’s like a blow to the side of your head or a kick in the gut. You don’t believe it until you see it, everything smelled of smoke,” he said.

The fire jumped the Peace River and entered Paddle Prairie with flames shooting 60 metres into the sky says Dean Decharme, who was in charge of emergency management, and stayed during the fire.

“The fire was so big, so intense. It was hitting the houses. Those houses were burning up in five minutes. The fire was so intense, it rolled on top of the trees,” he said.

“They could see it 200 feet in the air above the tree line.”

Thankfully, the settlement had time to evacuate beforehand and no one was hurt.

Read More: 

The history of the Metis settlements in Alberta and the ‘Famous Five’ 

Members of Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement return home to what’s left of their homes

Greg Calliou was the chair of the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement.

Calliou passed away in November.

Before his death, Calliou spoke to APTN News about the loss of their forest.

“We are feeling the impacts now. It’s hunting season. There is no place for us to hunt on the settlement,” Calliou said.

He added that ever since 1939, the settlement has always had plenty of moose.

“Now we have to go off Settlement to hunt,” he said.

Calliou blamed the Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD) saying it did a poor job fighting the fire.

The fire had spread to Paddle Prairie from near High Level Alberta, about 70 km to the north.

“The people who got burnt out, they lost everything, “ he said referring to the ASRD.

“If the ASRD and the people contained it off settlement, we never would have lost what we did.’

Prairie

(‘Those houses were burning up in five minutes,’ says Dean Ducharme, manager of emergency management. Photo: Chris Stewart/APTN)

Herb Lehr, president of the Metis Settlements General Council (MSGC) said the loss of the forest will have an impact lasting decades.

“The real loss is the loss of the trees, the loss of culture,” he said. “One hundred years of learning where the salt licks were, where the medicines were.

“This is the loss.”

Things are starting to return to normal. The MSGC has approved $3 million from their futures fund to pay for rebuilding.

They say the federal and provincial governments have not paid a cent.

Lehr said 40 councillors agreed to use the money.

“We can ensure that those 50 to 60 people who had now just become homeless, when winter comes, like it has come, that there are homes that they can move into,” he said.

All but one of the destroyed homes have been replaced with modular homes.

Nooskey received one of the homes.

He said the fire has strengthened the people.

“This is a great Community. I was born and raised here. I’m proud to say this is my community,” he said.

In part 3, we look at a day in the life at the East Prairie Metis Settlement.

Video Journalist / Edmonton

Chris Stewart has been in the media for 20 years. He has worked at CBC, Global and CTV as a news camera operator and editor. Chris joined APTN in 2012 in the Saskatoon Bureau and moved to APTN Edmonton bureau in 2015 as a Videojournalist.