Unnatural Disasters: Colonialism, climate displacement, and Indigenous sovereignty in Siksika Nation’s disaster recovery efforts

This case study was authored by: Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro, Lilia Yumagulova, and Emily Dicken.

Six years after a devastating 2013 flood event in Siksika Nation, community-led research documented the culturally appropriate, community member-led services applied by the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre (DDDRC) to address the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs of evacuees throughout disaster displacement. The Siksika Nation is located on Treaty 7 territory in southern Alberta, 87 kilometres southeast of Calgary and is the second-largest Indigenous reserve in Canada with a land area of 696.54 square kilometres and a total population of over 7,500. The Siksika are a part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes northern Montana and North Dakota, and extends north as far as Edmonton in Alberta and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan. In Canada, there is very little research within the Indigenous context on the connections between the unnatural disasters of colonialism, land dispossession, and climate displacement. Through community-led research, this case study documents the long-term impacts of land dispossession, disaster displacement, and climate change in Siksika Nation through interviews conducted with community members by Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro, a Siksika Elder. This case study focuses on highlighting best practices of Indigenous self-determination in disaster recovery. Over the coming decades, climate change is projected to further increase the frequency and magnitude of flooding across Alberta. Indigenous communities in Canada are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to Indigenous People’s intrinsic connection to and reliance on their traditional territories (e.g., for sustenance through rights to hunt and fish), remoteness in relation to access to essential services, infrastructure deficits, and exposure to climate risks. It is therefore important to understand how disaster response and emergency planning measures can play a role in reducing harm and promoting healing instead of perpetuating vulnerabilities and inequities.


Understanding and Assessing Impacts

In June 2013, eight communities along the Bow River, which flows west to east within the Siksika Nation, were devastated by a flood. Two main bridges and 171 homes were damaged by the flood, with over 1,000 people displaced from their homes. Six years later, community-led research documented the long-term impacts of land dispossession, disaster displacement, and climate change in Siksika Nation through interviews conducted with community members by Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro, a Siksika Elder. Grounded in Indigenous methodologies, this community case study sought to create a culturally safe space to explore colonial land dispossession and disaster evacuations within the context of climate displacement. Results of interviews with community members showed that the flood disaster further dispossessed the community of land, culture, sense of safety, and traditional ways of life. For example, it is estimated that a quarter of the Siksika land base has been lost or is now uninhabitable due to the flood. The trauma of disaster carried on long after the flood waters subsided, especially for the children. In interview after interview, community members spoke of re-traumatization, fear of the unknown, increased stress levels due to the need to pack up and move belongings, feelings of loss each time they moved, depression, sadness, and loss of income due to employment disruptions during displacement. The flood also caused contamination of water and soil. This resulted in reduced access to traditional seasonal foods and medicines, especially for the elderly, who relied on these medicines for their well-being.

Identifying Actions

To identify best practices of Indigenous self-determination in disaster recovery, Darlene conducted interviews with community members to understand the long journey home for Siksika evacuees who have been dealing with the long-term physical and mental health consequences of displacement, loss, and trauma. Through these discussions, Darlene observed that several key cultural continuity initiatives connected the evacuees to their culture, serving as their ‘home’ by creating culturally safe spaces throughout the phases of displacement. Historically, the Siksika way of life for families, friends, and neighbours can be summarized in a Blackfoot word ispommitaa (help out, assist). Ispommitaa connects members of the community with each other, revitalising co-operative cultural traditions and creating a sense of belonging through participation in shared events and through crises. These Indigenous community-held values became the foundation of flood recovery and community care throughout the displacement.

Implementation

One particularly unique Siksika organization, the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre (DDDRC), focused on “rebuilding families and communities through hope and healing”. The Centre consisted of a multi-disciplinary group of Siksika professionals, youth, and a Siksika traditional Elder. The team assisted the evacuees on their journey to recovery by providing culturally safe supports and services for physical, mental, and social well-being. The diverse professional background, experience, and knowledge of this team ensured that the multiple needs of the evacuees were addressed in one place, as a centralized service, instead of having to visit multiple departments. The other unique feature was that the team provided these services within the temporary housing of the evacuees, thus serving as a critical link for cultural continuity between the community and changing housing locations of the evacuees. Meeting the evacuees in their temporary homes and proactively delivering services based on established trust and relationship by Blackfoot-speaking professionals was a culturally safe practice that met the needs of the most vulnerable (such as elderly, chronically ill, and children with disabilities). By being the boots and the eyes on the ground, the centre staff were able to respond to community-identified gaps in recovery such as the impacts of disaster displacement on children.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Outcomes of this research show that recovery has been an ongoing process, with some of the community members still displaced from their home at the time of the interviews (spring-summer 2019), six and a half years after the event.

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