Elders from Misipawistik Cree Nation want the Brandon students and teacher responsible for a massive forest fire in 2008 to come to Grand Rapids for a traditional healing circle.
It’s called kwayaskonikiwin, one of the oldest traditional laws of reconciliation, said Michael Anderson, director of the natural resources secretariat for the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO).
“It means to set things right, to restore a balance,” Anderson said.
“The elders have requested that the students who were personally involved come back.”
A provincial investigation concluded that a Brandon School Division field trip most likely started a forest fire that consumed 53,008 hectares of forest, destroyed natural habitat and trappers’ cabins, and cost $4.5 million to extinguish.
Anderson said that it could take 80 to 100 years for the forest to regenerate because the fire was so intense that it burned away boreal soil right down to the rock.
Three trappers have lost their family’s source of income, Anderson said, but “it’s the character of the area lost, too — it’s mature forest, with several types of medicine plants.”
Anderson said that it is only recently that Brandon School Division recognized publicly that the forest fire had an impact on the people living in the Grand Rapids area.
As first reported by the Brandon Sun in April, a delegation from the division has recently been to Grand Rapids to begin reconciliation with Misipawistik Cree Nation.
“The focus is, what can be done now?” he said. “The elders said they want to see everyone — it’s how a traditional healing circle would function.
“Come to Grand Rapids, and hear from the community what the results were, in their own words.”
Anderson said that the provincial Wildfires Act could have held the division and the supervising teacher responsible for the fire. It was the former teacher who directed the students to burn used toilet paper, the action that the province cited as the most likely cause of the fire, Anderson said.
The teacher, David Barnes, could not be contacted Wednesday.
People in Grand Rapids are aware that BSD and its Eco-Odyssey program chose not to hire local guides to accompany the school field trip, Anderson said.
“The students lit a fire under very dry and very windy conditions, under the supervision of an adult,” he said. “It remains that there was no action taken against the students and the teacher.”
Even while the fire was still burning, students and residents of Brandon were criticizing school trustees’ decision to scrap the popular Eco-Odyssey program, Anderson said.
He said that some Brandon trustees argued against spending reserve funds on division needs because the money might have to be used to pay compensation.
Anderson said Misipawistik Cree Nation is aware that the students on that 2008 field trip were in grades 11 and 12, and that they graduated several years ago. But they still want those young adults to come to the community, he said.
“There is some replanting that can be done. There are some very knowledgeable persons that can guide them,” Anderson said.
A healing circle is not a negative experience, Anderson said. There would also be a celebration of the community, of its values and beliefs, and awareness of the meaning of the natural environment to the people of the area.
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 15, 2012