It's been more than two weeks since wildfires forced hundreds of people from the Shoal Lake and Red Earth Cree Nations to evacuate their homes north of Hudson Bay, Sask. — and still, no official return date has been set.
"They're very lonely," said Shoal Lake Chief Marcel Head in a virtual news conference Friday afternoon. "They want to return home, but we've been telling them that we wouldn't want to put a risk on their health."
Environment Canada lifted all air quality advisories in the area Friday afternoon. The biggest threat — the nearby Bell fire — is now contained but continues to burn.
However, under the current conditions, the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) said no further spread is expected.
The Saskatchewan Red Cross told CBC News it plans to meet with the leadership of both communities Saturday to decide evacuees' next steps.
Before anyone returns, Head said community members need to address the smoke damage and air quality inside their homes to ensure everything is safe.
He noted some people have already gone back to begin the cleaning process, and air purifiers are also on the way from Indigenous Services Canada.
Indigenous-led wildfire strategy in the works
While many northern communities are used to dealing with wildfires, Head said this one especially left both Shoal Lake and Red Earth scrambling for provincial resources to fight the flames and deal with the smoke.
"Things should have been done before the evacuations," he said. "We can't keep going into these problems. We're treated kind of like second-class or third-class citizens in the province — and even in Canada."
Head said both First Nations are currently working on a new Indigenous-led wildfire strategy in coordination with the Prince Albert Tribal Council and the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority. He expects there will be guidance from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, federal government, Red Cross and SPSA later on as well.
"For years, it's always been [the province] making the decisions about the wildfire season, and I'm thinking there's got to be ways to do things better," he said. "There has to be some actions taken."
Head said he plans to present the strategy on a national level to the Assembly of First Nations later this year.