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How Indigenous leaders are teaching youth on reserves to help their communities cope with disasters

July 29, 2023

The Preparing Our Home program helps young people learn to manage emergencies with communities’ needs in mind

A group of people, many wearing colourful ribbon skirts, stand on a patio strung with lights at night.
A group of mentors and mentees stand together at the Preparing Our Home gathering in Osoyoos, B.C., on Oct. 18, 2022. The program approaches emergency preparedness from Indigenous perspectives, accounting for the unique needs of First Nations communities. (Devin Naveau)

Click on the following link to listen to “What on Earth”

In the face of Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, a national program that teaches Indigenous youth to become emergency preparedness leaders is more important than ever, say its founders. 

The Preparing Our Home program aims to improve disaster management on reserve by sharing practices geared towards Indigenous communities – communities that are increasingly and disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. 

An elder and a youth stand holding hands and smiling against the backdrop of a rocky hill
Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro stands with a youth mentee at a Preparing Our Home gathering in Osoyoos, B.C. It helps connect elders and emergency management professionals with Indigenous youth who can become leaders in their communities. (Melody Charlie)

“With Preparing Our Home, there’s been a real awareness and education [about] disasters and evacuations, how to work with your community when those incidents happen,” program co-founder and mentor Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro told CBC’s What On Earth

As part of the program, Yellow Old Woman-Munro shares lessons learned during the climate-linked disaster that struck her own nation: the 2013 flood that hit the Siksika Nation and other parts of southern Alberta. 

A new model to support Indigenous evacuees 

In its aftermath, Yellow Old Woman-Munro developed the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre to support evacuees spread out around the large reserve. 

Evacuees were usually expected to travel to a central location for support, but Yellow Old Woman-Munro said she knew her community needed a different approach. She put together a team of health-care workers and youth to visit evacuees in the temporary sites where they were living instead.

Thirteen people pose, smiling, against a red wall.
Yellow Old Woman-Munro, centre, stands with members of the Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre, a team created to assist evacuees from the flood that struck the Siksika Nation in Alberta in 2013. (Dancing Deer Disaster Recovery Centre)

“For evacuees, to travel was an issue,” Yellow Old Woman-Munro said. “So it was easier for us … to go out and meet with the evacuees, find out what they needed, bring food, bring water, blankets, tents to them.” 

The Preparing Our Home Program, which has been running for seven years, shares these kinds of community-focused practices with Indigenous youth across Canada. 

Program co-founder and director Lilia Yumagulova said conventional disaster response is inappropriate for many living on reserve. For example, being taken on a bus and housed in evacuation centres, such as gymnasiums with rows of cots and bright lights, can be a “traumatic triggering event,” for residential school survivors, she said. 

“There is a lot … that needs to be changed to make it much more culturally safe,” she said.

‘You’re not alone facing these issues’ 

When it comes to emergency preparedness, Yumagulova said, conventional messaging is aimed at middle class, able-bodied people who can afford an emergency preparedness kit and a vehicle. 

“There is this silent majority that actually falls outside of those spaces and that’s where a lot of preparedness efforts should be directed,” she said.

Preparing Our Home holds an annual gathering in Osoyoos, B.C. in the fall, during which youth learn from elders and emergency management professionals. 

“We really begin with understanding why communities are at such a disproportionate amount of risk,” said Yumagulova. “So you begin with the Indian Act and the forced displacement that many communities went through.”

Then, she said, they explore solutions from Indigenous communities across the country.  

“The youth say that it’s just amazing to know that you’re not alone facing these issues,” she said. 

Indigenous-led evacuation

Michelle Vandevord, a Muskoday First Nation firefighter and associate director for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management, is a mentor with the program. She teaches youth about wildfire management and Indigenous-led evacuation practices. 

A woman in a firefighter's uniform stands in front of a fire truck, smiling, with her hand on the door handle
Michelle Vandevord, a Muskoday First Nation firefighter and associate director for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management, is a mentor with the Preparing Our Home program. (Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada)

One example: a cultural camp held in Prince Albert, Sask., in May for evacuees from the fire that threatened the community at Deschambault Lake in the province’s northeast. “When you think about our First Nation people going to hotels and the foods that are being served, it’s not something that people are used to,” Vandevord said. 

Fast food can have health impacts for people from remote communities, especially diabetics, she added.

The cultural camp in Prince Albert, she said, served fish, caribou, and moose, offering evacuees a familiar meal of traditional foods.  “[It was] very First Nations-led, solving a problem that we see on the ground,” Vandevord said. 

Such practices are vital for community wellbeing during disasters, say Preparing Our Home mentors. 

Careers in emergency management

The goal of the annual gathering is for youth to return to their communities and teach others what they’ve learned about emergency preparedness.  The event can also lead to careers in emergency management for some of the young participants.

A young man wearing glasses and a black baseball hat stands smiling slightly in an office setting.
Brent Boissoneau, 24, has attended the Preparing Our Home gathering and was hired as the emergency management co-ordinator for his community, Mattagmi First Nation in Ontario, earlier this year.(Preparing Our Home)

Brent Boissoneau, 24, is one of them. He attended the gathering several years ago and was hired as the emergency management co-ordinator for his community, Mattagami First Nation in Ontario, earlier this year. It’s a federally funded role that many, including Canada’s Auditor General, say is critical for Indigenous communities during disasters. 

“You learn so much from other people that are there,” Boissoneau said of the gathering. “And building that relationship to see what [disaster management strategies] can we take from them and what can we give to them as well?”

More reactive than preventative 

A 2022 Auditor General’s report said the federal government is failing to provide the support First Nations need to manage emergencies. The report says many problems were identified a decade ago, but Indigenous Services Canada has not solved them. 

Lilia Yumagulova said there has been some progress.  “Indigenous peoples within these colonial structures … are making [an] enormous difference in moving these files forward,” she said. “Unfortunately there has been report after report after report and the change is not fast enough.”

The report finds that Indigenous Services Canada’s actions are more reactive than preventative. The department spends 3.5 times more on disaster response and recovery than on emergency prevention and preparedness.  

Preparing Our Home is mainly funded through a grant from Indigenous Services Canada, but the Auditor General says the federal government needs to do more to fund emergency preparedness, including collaborating with First Nations to determine how many more emergency management co-ordinators are needed in First Nations around the country and funding them. 

In an emailed statement, Indigenous Services Canada said it has made progress on all of the recommendations in the Auditor General’s 2022 report. The department said it’s working with First Nations partners to improve emergency management services, including “supporting new First Nations-led service delivery models that reflect community needs and First Nations’ inherent right to self-determination.” 


Rachel Sanders, Producer

Based in Vancouver, Rachel Sanders covers climate change for CBC Radio’s What On Earth. She previously worked for the CBC program White Coat, Black Art, the CBC podcast The Dose, and CBC Vancouver’s local current affairs radio programs. She can be reached at