A B.C. First Nations chief says emotions ran high between himself and the RCMP when he told officers residents wouldn’t be obeying an evacuation order as several wildfires threaten the community.
On Sunday, Chief Joe Alphonse of the Tl’etinqox First Nation community of Anaham Reserve announced that some members of the community would be staying behind, several to fight the fire.
The community, about two hours west of Williams Lake, isn’t far from the 5,000-hectare Gustafsen fire. It’s also near several out-of-control fires in the Hanceville area.
The First Nation was placed under an evacuation order on Sunday, but Alphonse said he won’t be leaving.
“We’re going to fight for our place,” the chief said. “We’d rather be out there fighting, protecting, than allow somebody else. We appreciate the work [of firefighters] … but this is what we want.”
As of Tuesday, Alphonse said 300 people — a third of the community — were still in the area, though he said “more and more” were trickling out every day.
The chief said he had a run-in with the RCMP on Sunday over his decision to stay put.
“I notified them [the officers] that we’re not leaving,” he told CBC News.
“Community stress levels were really high and RCMP said, for those that don’t leave, they will call the Ministry of Children and remove the children.”
After that, Alphonse said, tempers flared.
“At that point, I kind of lost it a little bit and said, ‘We’re not leaving.’ If you guys want to set up roadblocks on both ends of our reserve, that’s fine, but we’ll set up roadblocks right beside yours to stop you guys getting in. They told me our roadblock won’t hold them back, but I said, ‘It may not hold you back, but once you start dodging bullets, you’ll start turning around.'”
Asked to clarify the latter part of his comments, Alphonse said, “Take it however you want, I made a statement and that’s that.”
However, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Annie Linteau said late Tuesday in an emailed statement the RCMP don’t believe the comment reflects the recent and continued meetings it has had with the chief since those statements were made.
“Our RCMP First Nations policing officers continue to engage with the community and there is an understanding around our concerns for their safety,” she said.
RCMP will ‘act to protect’ children’s safety: officer
When an evacuation order goes into effect, the RCMP mandate is to advise people to move to safety and inform them of the risks they’d take in staying behind.
Adults who are mentally competent are entitled to remain on their property if they wish. However, Mounties could remove minors under the Child, Family and Community Service Act, if they were in danger.
“Children may be removed for their own safety,” Linteau said. “It’s certainly not where we want to get, and there’s a fair amount of discretion, but we do have a responsibility to protect those who are not in a position to make adult decisions.”
The E Division officer added there would be little RCMP could do, if residents who ignore evacuation orders were to request help later on.
“At the end of the day, if the situation worsens, the safety of our officers will be paramount and we’re not going to put them in a position that will get them hurt.”
‘We’re proud people’
On Sunday, B.C. Forests Minister John Rustad — who is also the member of the legislature for Nechako Lakes — said Alphonse’s decision to stay put was “troubling.”
“I understand why he wants to do it, but this is a serious risk given the challenge of what could happen with rapid moving fires,” he wrote on Facebook.
The chief said the community is well-prepared to hold its ground, with enough food and medicine to last a few weeks.
“We’re proud people and we want to fight for what we have left,” he said. “We may lose everything, but if we do, then at least we know we gave it 110 per cent. There’s comfort in that.”