NORTH OF GRAND RAPIDS, Man. -- Before the fire...

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NORTH OF GRAND RAPIDS, Man. -- Before the fire...

Before the fire, the aspen and black spruce and jack pine spread as far as the eye could see, lush and teeming with life.

Before the fire, the woods abounded with moose and marten for meat and furs, and the vegetation gifted medicines to the people who knew where to look.

Before the fire, Misipawistik Cree Nation members would spread across their traditional lands to learn to hunt and fish, to pick berries and to know the ways of their ancestors.

Before the fire.

It started on May 28, 2008, a few kilometres west of Highway 6 about 30 kilometres north of Grand Rapids, in the vicinity of Norris Lake. By the time the burning was done two weeks later, the fire had consumed 53,008.7 hectares of land, more than twice the size of the city of Winnipeg.

The devastation sounds unbelievably precise, until you realize it's the metric translation of 400 square miles of forest.

The cost of fighting the fire was $4.5 million, but no one has estimated the cost of what was lost -- the financial worth of the vegetation and animals, the cultural and spiritual worth of the vegetation and animals.

An investigation by Manitoba Conservation fire investigator Rodney Forbes concluded the fire began when a student from Brandon's Neelin High School on an award-winning Eco-Odyssey field trip burned toilet paper under the direction of his teacher.

It's the very last thing that happened before the fire.

"It's something our generation can't get back -- it's lost. It's so disheartening to see it grow back, it'll take 100 years. It's just a desert, it's like a planet that has no life," MCN member Wayne Scott said.

"(People are) devastated... they're sad when they go out there. There's no animals; the animals are gone," trapper Ken Cook said.

Misipawistik Cree Nation and the Grand Rapids Trappers Association have repeatedly asked the Brandon School Division, the 20 or so students and teacher involved in that field trip, to come to their community for reconciliation and a healing ceremony.

The Brandon division balks at anything that would remotely suggest it had responsibility, the teacher has retired and isn't talking, the students are in their early 20s and none, so far as anyone knows, has been back to Grand Rapids, a community 430 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The Neelin students were among the last to see how magnificent it all was... before the fire.




After the fire, band councillor Heidi Cook was doing a presentation in Riding Mountain National Park when, by chance, she encountered one of the students.

She was talking about the Cree, their values and how a protected area has different meanings to different people, she said. And she talked about how having land declared a protected area ended up drawing more people into it, people who didn't know how to respect the land.

The student had not started the fire, but had been there.

"He felt really awful. I don't think that weight is something those kids need to be carrying around for the rest of their lives," Cook said.

She has a master's degree in development practice from the University of Winnipeg and, like many band members, would like to generate jobs for the community by managing responsible ecotourism.

In 1989, Cook was only nine when a major fire south of Grand Rapids forced everyone but the firefighters to leave. Only now is that area starting to show signs of regenerated growth. So they know how many decades, how many generations, before their land will be restored from the 2008 blaze.

When the 2008 fire broke out near Norris Lake, there was already a fire engaged to the north at Sheridan Lake, so it took time to attack the so-called Norris Lake fire. By the third day, the wind started to blow hard.

Said Jerry Cook, who was hunting bear when it started: "You knew it was going to be pretty bad."

The smoke was thick in Grand Rapids, though fire crews, water bombers and rain stopped it from reaching the town and the reserve.

Weeks later, investigators were able to trace the origins to a seven-feet-by-seven-feet spot where the student had ignited his toilet paper.

"The shape of the burn -- it was like an arrow pointing to where the camp was," Heidi Cook said.

A trapper's cabin that belonged to her grandfather, Walter Cook, was destroyed. His old rifle, tin cans with tea -- things with sentimental value -- all lost.

Her grandfather had died long before, but he would take young boys out to the woods to learn to hunt and trap.

"He cared about having this land protected. It's part of our traditional territory,and our trapline territory," she said. "You can't survive on trapping alone, but it's part of our heritage."

MCN has felt this kind of loss before, when Manitoba Hydro built the dam and generating station on the Saskatchewan River that divides the reserve and the town. Major hydro lines -- Bipoles I and II -- also go through the reserve.

"Our history with Manitoba Hydro may be why our people are so sensitive to the loss of territory," Heidi Cook said. "It's about respect for the people. We lost the biggest amount of territory to a (deliberate) flood... This comes along, you get ignored again -- it doesn't feel good."

It's a pretty easy juxtaposition, looking at the homes on the reserve, then looking a kilometre or two away at the hydro housing and playground and park at the generating station.




There are skeletons, charred skeletons, stretching to the horizon.

Around the tens of thousands of dead trees, tiny Jack pines are starting to grow, most a foot or two of green amid the desolation. We're wearing bright vests because this is truly out in the bush of northern Manitoba, where serious hunters camp out for weeks in search of a now rarely seen moose that can feed several families through a winter.

These are traditional hunters -- not suburbanites in SUVs who take antlers and leave animals to rot -- people who learned the skills from their fathers and grandfathers.

The trappers are out here, too. People who run traplines seven or eight kilometres off the highway, taking pickup trucks and ATVs and snow machines deep into the woods to trap, to sell the furs and use every scrap of meat for their families.

Come here with city inhibitions about hunting and trapping, and you quickly hear how people have survived for centuries with no supermarket a five-minute drive away.

Scattered along an ancient logging road throughout the 2008 fire expanse are little camps where hunters set up their tents and recreation vehicles for the duration, venturing out near dusk in search of moose.

It was in such a setting the students camped to check out the many bat caves in the area.

"We've always hunted in this area, Williams Lake, Davidson Lake," said Ken Cook, a trapper from MCN. "We had a guy here trapping last winter, he caught maybe five marten."

Before the fire? "Two hundred he caught, in one season."

Marten nest in larger trees. They need downed trees to hunt their prey. They have all but disappeared, said Stanley Beardy, president of the Grand Rapids Trappers Association.

Like others, Ken Cook made about 30 per cent of his livelihood from trapping in good years. Cook is a commercial fisher, a fire ranger in summer, a resource management assistant with Manitoba Conservation.

There are 112 members of the trappers association, of whom 20 are regularly active.

Jerry Cook traps, he guides hunters from the U.S. seeking black bear, and he works at the provincial fish hatchery in Grand Rapids. This day in late September he's driven his truck down the old logging road as far as it can go, before fallen trees block it completely. After that, it's a 10-minute hike to the shores of Davidson Lake, where the pre-winter wind is whipping up heavy waves -- it's a breathtaking view.

The sort of view, members of MCN say, that they'd be happy to guide visitors to see, to create jobs in their community.

Then there are the hundreds of bat caves as well as snake dens. Heidi Cook would like to see the band and province co-manage the area so they can guide people to see them.

It is where U of W Prof. Craig Willis conducts extensive research, trying to stop the white nose syndrome that's killing bats all over North America. Willis honours a 'social licence' and reports to MCN twice a year on what he's learning on their ancestral land, Cook said, something the students ought to have done.

The band is also looking at a partnership with Parks Canada, Cook said, to help promote better stewardship of the land.

"With Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands off of B.C.'s northern coast), there's a model I really like -- there's a mandatory orientation you have to do if you're not going in with a guide... so you're respectful of the territory."

Harvey Gagne, a crossbow hunter from éle des Chênes, has been coming in his camper for the last 11 years, staying up to four weeks to kill the one moose he's allowed by law. Two weeks into the hunt, the affable Gagne has seen one moose 165 metres away, out of range.

"It's definitely affected the wildlife, even the grouse," he said. "Definitely it had a lot more grouse. The areas that are burned, there's nothing. I only saw one bear. The moose population, it's gone down for sure. It's starting to grow a little bit, (but), every year, more trees fall down."

The moose tend to be in the swamp areas where there was less damage, said Gagne.

"The one I shot last year, deboned, 625 pounds. I gave lots away -- I have three kids."



Lucy Robinson (second from right) at a town hall meeting.


Lucy Robinson (second from right) at a town hall meeting.


Members of Misipawistik Cree Nation have gathered in the community hall next to the bridge in Grand Rapids on a cold September night to speak from the heart about the fire that changed their lives that May 2008 day.

"What we lost is priceless -- it'll take seven generations," said Andrew Jacobson, who was fishing the day the fire broke out. "I was fishing up that way. They told me to get my boat the hell out of there."

"I started trapping when I was 12," said Brent Ballantyne, who used to make 30 to 40 per cent of his income from trapping. "The trapping is poor right now," he said quietly, without rancour.

Said band councillor Yvonne Ballantyne: "I don't think people realized how big it was right away. The fire in '89, those trees are just starting" to grow back.

"Traditional medicines were out there," Brenda Cook said. "We can't own the land -- it heals us. It's born within us. We feel that connection, it's in our blood."

"There's all kinds of medicine you can gather from the bush," agreed Lucy Robinson. "It was a fast-moving fire; the animals didn't have a chance. You don't see any animals out there... it's pretty sad out there."

And from Valerie Fourre: "Our children won't be able to see what we've seen."

Ken Cook and some others are still talking reparations, long after the Brandon School Division has said it will not give back anything tangible. Cook said there have been suggestions BSD provide firewood for elders, fund awareness programs and join in education programs on trapping and survival skills.

Said Jerry Cook: "All along, the most important thing was an apology of some sort -- no one has ever said they're sorry. I'm sure they spent a lot on their ecotouring -- they could rustle up a few dollars for us."

"What are they willing to do, in terms of giving back to the community?" asked Robinson. "Every school division should be teaching their students about fire safety and the land. That fire could have happened anywhere that kids go out. They weren't given enough education, how to be outside, and to treat the land."


"If they have no connection to the land, they'll feel no loss," she added.

Wayne Scott said the province all too often takes away local jobs, such as tree planting. "They took that away from the community and gave the jobs to university students. The government, they're awarding contracts to southern people. It could benefit us -- it's a slap in our face. Maybe we can talk to the (Brandon) school board to subsidize that and hire people from the community.

"We can run it, we don't need the government to do that for us."

Brenda Cook implored the students "to come and see what they did."




Several Brandon School Division trustees and administrators came to Grand Rapids in 2012.

"We did say to them we were sorry for the impact on the community," said board chairman Mark Sefton. "There's no question, from a financial point of view, that people suffered financial hardship.

"It was a terrible accident."

Sefton has been a teacher in the northern community of Norway House and has an understanding of what the loss meant to so many people.

He's very clear, however, the Brandon division will not put money in trappers' pockets, it will not buy firewood for elders, it will not rebuild trappers' cabins and it will not spend any money for any of the ideas coming out of the Grand Rapids area.

"No -- compensation, reparations, is not something we're prepared to discuss. It's not in the cards," Sefton said.

The Eco-Odyssey program had camped in that area several times since its creation in 1995. It had won a Prime Minister's Teaching Excellence Award in 2000. The program was cancelled after the fire.

By the time investigators had concluded the Neelin field trip caused the fire, it was a year later and most of the participants had graduated, Sefton said. The division hasn't contacted them, and he's unaware any of the former students have contacted BSD or people in Grand Rapids.

The division has told MCN it would be willing to discuss education programs that are mutually beneficial.

Sefton was intrigued about some of the ideas being discussed for MCN members to guide and host southern students at camps that would introduce them to the wilderness and to Cree culture.

"That would be very interesting," said Sefton.




Decades, generations, a lifetime or more -- no one knows how long it will take for those 53,008.7 hectares of Jack pine, aspen and balsam to come back, and if they do, whether they'll be the way they were before the fire.

"We don't have a lot of topsoil here, it's all limestone. It's pretty desolate," lamented Heidi Cook.

Said University of Winnipeg forest ecology Prof. Andrew Park: "This is at the upper range of fires you typically see in a boreal forest fire -- it's a humongous fire."

Jack pine have cones that open in high heat and spread out seeds, he said: "Within three to five years, you should have fairly healthy regeneration," but that's just to see Jack pine starting to grow.

Hardwoods such as aspen regenerate from roots, but they may have been badly damaged.

"You're talking a 50- to 60-year process," Park said. "With a really hot fire, you have regeneration retarded or failed."

University of Manitoba soil science Prof. Brian Amiro said it's most likely the forest's restoration could take 100 years.

The area is shallow soil and bedrock -- it will take a long time for soil to come back and for moss to grow. Aspen will return first, but it could take 20 to 40 years for black spruce to start growing. Jack pine could take 50 years to come all the way back, Amiro said, adding it will be 20 years just to have enough fuel for another fire.

"Every fire tends to have very specific characteristics. It could be 20 years, it could be hundreds of years," he said.




Keith Thomas was driving back from Thompson when the fire raged in 2008.

"It was very dry. It was a horrendous fire -- I was coming down the highway, and it was very scary," recalled Thomas, the risk manager for the Manitoba School Boards Association. "I remember that field trip very well -- we alerted our insurance providers there could be a situation."

There is no record of any payment ever having been made for causing an accidental forest fire, Thomas said, even though legislation allows the province to seek reparations. Had it gone further, insurers would have demanded absolute proof the field trip caused the fire.

"It was an accident, it wasn't malicious," said Thomas, adding all schools, even before the event, had been provided with protocols for outdoor trips.




You'll have to go elsewhere to find out how to find the Grand Rapids School culture camp -- anyone who has legitimate business there knows the way.

Suffice to say it's in wondrous woodland somewhere near Grand Rapids, with a magnificent view of Lake Winnipeg.

It's been there for 20 years, said Grand Rapids School principal Annie Ballantyne as she led a tour.

A dozen or so simple cabins of wood and canvas, each with a firewood stove, each with beds for four kids and an adult, ring a firepit.

The site includes a kitchen, a mess hall, a sweat lodge, biffies, even a rack to dry moose hides.

"They never get cold," said Ballantyne, who dispatches Grade 7 kids for three separate weeks each year, including winter, when there are sled-dog races on the frozen lake.

"In June, we invite the whole school to come down, and rotate them," she said. Easterville and Gypsumville reserve schools are interested in coming and the Frontier School Division brought trustees and administrators to the camp.

The students fish, then clean and cook their catch. There's a fasting camp and a medicine camp to gather traditional medicines from the woods.

And there's talk that maybe southern students would gain a lot from a week at the camp, paying fees and using services that would generate jobs and revenue for the people of the Grand Rapids area.

The land-based education transforms children, Ballantyne smiled: "Their demeanour is a lot different than when they're in the classroom.

"And it belongs to them."