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Once 'forgotten,' Oujé-Bougoumou Cree watch nervously as wildfire threatens community

MONTREAL — For Priscilla Bosum, the magnitude of what was happening to her northern Quebec home of Oujé-Bougoumou only sunk in when an evacuation order Tuesday night left her wondering if she and her family would ever see it again.
Smoke is seen obscuring the sky on the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree Nation, Que., in a June 6, 2023, handout photo. The First Nations community in northern Quebec was abruptly evacuated Tuesday as an out-of-control wildfire approached. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Deputy Chief Lance Cooper, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

MONTREAL — For Priscilla Bosum, the magnitude of what was happening to her northern Quebec home of Oujé-Bougoumou only sunk in when an evacuation order Tuesday night left her wondering if she and her family would ever see it again.

Bosum and three of her children had already left the Cree community for southern Quebec earlier that day when a fast-approaching wildfire prompted the emergency evacuation. Her husband and 18-year-old son stayed behind to help fight the blaze.

"It was kind of hard for me to leave the community under those circumstances, not knowing what was gonna happen," said Bosum. "Ashes were already falling, and the sky was turning orange. It was just scary."

Three of the province's nine Cree communities are threatened by wildfires, including Waswanipi and Mistissini. But only Oujé-Bougoumou, about 500 kilometres north of Montreal, has been evacuated completely.

With about 800 residents, Oujé-Bougoumou is the province's newest Cree community. Its people had spent decades moving around their traditional lands, displaced by mining projects, before winning a fight with the federal and provincial governments to have a permanent settlement, which was built in the early 1990s. It was recognized by the United Nations in 1995 as one of 50 outstanding examples of community development.

Bosum remembers when community members lived in cabins and shacks along the highway outside the town of Chibougamau.

"So I've seen my community being built from the ground up to what it is today," she said. "That's why for me it's really hard to think of the possibility that the fire could get to our community. It's just all our memories — we didn't have a community before; we were the forgotten Cree."

Isabelle Moquin-Cuny, a nurse from Montreal who has lived in Oujé-Bougoumou since 2016, fled the community Tuesday with her husband, daughters and several pets.

Moquin-Cuny said her essentials bag had been packed for some time and in the days before the evacuation, the air had been orange and the moon red amid dense smoke.

“We were certainly trying to stay calm. There was a lot of smoke in Oujé-Bougoumou and ash that was landing on us,” she said. “The air was difficult, I still have problems with my breathing.”

Their entire life was left behind in that community and their departure was harrowing, she said, adding she was fearful they would run into a fire that would block their departure.

Moquin-Cuny said she hopes to return soon. “It’s a beautiful community,” she said. “We adore the people who live there, and we’re hopeful we will find our community again.”   

When Bosum and her children drove off Tuesday, remaining residents thought they had about 48 hours before the fire could reach a point triggering an evacuation. But high winds propelled the flames towards the community, giving them just five hours to clear out.

Bosum was on the road without cell reception and only found out about the evacuation a few hours after the fact. Her thoughts turned to her parents and other relatives back home, but she couldn't turn back. She slept little while awaiting news.

"My 14-year-old said, 'This can't be happening. This is our home, this is where I grew up, this is where all our memories are'," Bosum recalled. "And the only thing that I could tell her was, 'You know, those are material things, like those can be replaced as long as we have each other, as a family.'"

Oujé-Bougoumou deputy Chief Lance Cooper said locals had never seen the sky turning orange the way it did in the 24 hours preceding the evacuation. By the end of the week, the prognosis had improved: the fire had hit a swamp area that slowed its progress. An additional 150 firefighters were also expected on the scene, though there was no timetable for a possible return for evacuees.

"We have never been evacuated like this before," Cooper said from a shelter in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region. "We've had wildfires in the surrounding areas, and our neighbours have been evacuated to our community once, but we have never had a mass evacuation like this due to a forest fire."

Cooper described Oujé-Bougoumou as a safe space for a Cree community that was frequently uprooted over the course of 50 years. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mental health toll it took, the community had been looking for a sense of normalcy before being thrust back into trauma.

"As I speak with my members here at the shelter, a lot of them are hopeful," Cooper said, adding that the community knows how to work together through tough times and it has received top-notch care in the Saguenay region. "Even through this, we're going to come out stronger, we're going to come out better," Cooper said.

Bosum said being forced to flee has put things into perspective. "You know, with this type of thing happening, you realize where your real home is," she said, "and you know that's where you want to be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2023.

— With files from Jacob Serebrin.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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