As wildfires roared across the forests, grasslands and towns of British Columbia last summer, a dedicated unit of RCMP officers from Aboriginal Policing Services (APS) helped Indigenous communities under siege.
One of the teams was led by RCMP Sgt. Dee Stewart, acting officer in charge of B.C.'s APS section.
The team's role was to assist partner agencies and communities when evacuation orders were issued and lifted. The officers helped residents move in and out of affected areas. Teams would also deliver food, water and other much-needed supplies, and they would simply check on people to make sure they were safe.
No one can accurately predict if the fires will return with similar force this summer but, if they do, Stewart knows what affected Aboriginal communities will do.
They're going to call on my APS unit," says Stewart, who's also a member of the Shuswap Nation's Bonaparte Indian Band. "
Wherever the fire was last year, or where there was need, in our Aboriginal communities, we would follow the fire."
Determine needs — then go
During the wildfires, Stewart attended daily morning briefings to learn which communities were at risk. She would then update RCMP members and divide them into teams of two. They would then fan out to the communities most affected that day, sometimes driving hundreds of kilometres and working 12- to 16-hour shifts.
In late July, the residents of Alkali Lake, located south of Williams Lake or about 340 kilometres northwest of Kamloops, began returning home after an evacuation order was lifted. However, shortly after their arrival, the fire again came dangerously close.
If the winds had shifted and the fire hit the grasslands, it could have quickly swept back, and we were concerned about how many residents were in the community," says Stewart.
So Cst. Scott Macleod and Cst. Daniel Cohen were dispatched to Alkali Lake on July 30 to determine how many residents had come back and to discuss emergency plans with local officials.
No sooner had police started door-knocking to find out how many band members were on site, they were asked to explain what was happening.
There was a bit of a panic. People were asking, 'Why are the police going around asking questions,'" says Alkali Lake Band Councillor Neil Paul.
Cohen and Macleod acknowledged having officers canvassing residents raised alarm bells.
I can see them putting two and two together and saying, 'Hey, is this an evacuation order?" says Macleod.
To ease any worry, Macleod was invited on community radio to explain the situation, and after a brief broadcast, the pair were back touring the community of about 120 homes. Paul came along, too.
After that, and at the end of the day, our presence helped because people were reassured we were there to help," says Cohen.
Stewart, who has been involved in Aboriginal policing for 14 years and in charge of the APS section for more than a year, says it was vital to know what was happening and who was in the community.
I think that the community was upset until they figured out who the RCMP members were and what their role was," she says. "
It was a fluid situation that had a bit of a potential. The next day we had a meeting with the community to make sure the community was on high alert."
Sometimes the little things help, too.
Stewart says last summer one community asked some of the unit's officers for help to organize a youth event.
That sounds silly but it made such an impact with the youth and it is such a positive thing for our members and the community to see," says Stewart.
Stewart says the communities served by the unit want to see officers committed to the job.
I think that our communities, and for me as a First Nations person, see the benefits of having First Nations police services members dedicated to our communities and addressing our community needs," she says.