At the train station in Ilford, Manitoba, seemingly everyone in town gathers around the baggage car. Boxes and bags of groceries and other supplies are passed down and around as passengers get off the train to stretch their legs or have a smoke.
Councillor Dwayne Flett picks us up from the station, as well as a building inspector visiting town. He takes us to a house on the edge of the reserve, and says he’ll come by at 10 a.m. tomorrow to get started.
In the morning, Dwayne picks us up an hour earlier than we’d agreed upon the night before. He hits the horn to let us know he’s waiting, the dust his pick-up kicked up still settling behind him. He tells us he’s the only councillor in town today, which is why he’s early – he’s got an entire town to run.
Ilford is a small community with a population of 106, according to the 2016 census, with 30 homes. Most of the homes are on the main street, a gravel road with an invisible boundary separating the Cree reserve land from the Crown land where the Métis people in town live. It’s a young community with few elders and many children. There is one elementary school in town that teaches students up to Grade 8 – after that, students must leave the community to attend high school.
Outside of the band office, there’s a sign telling visitors to remove their shoes. We walk inside and Dwayne immediately goes into his office, checking emails and answering the phone. We decide to walk around town and see who and what we might bump into. In the hallway, three young girls and a toddler are putting their shoes back on. The toddler points to his feet – he needs help putting on his shoes. Outside, the kids want to race us down the street. They beat us easily, even in their flip flops.
The town is quiet, save a few barking dogs, until the middle of the day. It’s been breezy and cool all morning, but people come out in their trucks and ATVs once the sun hits its peak. The flies are out as well – people gently brush them from their face, unbothered by the buzzing and the bites.
We walk to the train station, which is noticeably quieter than it was last night when the train pulled in. Up here, the trains aren’t just for tourists and travellers – the railway is essential for the community to get basic supplies.
Issues on the track this summer have put the entire community of Ilford and the War Lake First Nation in dire straits. The train hasn’t been running regularly, sometimes not at all, because of flooding on the line. This is more than the minor inconvenience a delayed or cancelled train would be in a large city. A cancelled train in the north means missed doctor’s appointments for patients with diabetes, heart conditions, and cancer. It means scrupulous meal planning to make food last until the next train comes in. It means life-saving prescriptions are late.
“It’s hard to get on a train here,” says Verna Flett, an elder of the War Lake First Nation. “It’s so late sometimes, and you don’t know when it’s going to come in. And sometimes people get left behind.”
Chief Betsy Kennedy has been fighting for the community’s basic needs, arranging an emergency delivery of essentials like baby food from the Red Cross. Community leaders were considering an evacuation if the situation didn’t improve, but are holding off for now as fewer train trips are being cancelled. This would have been Ilford’s second evacuation in four years.
In 2013, Ilford was too close for comfort to a forest fire that raged in the nearby area. In the early afternoon, we meet Dwayne back at the band office. We hop in his pick-up for a town tour with a country music radio station as our soundtrack.
He drives us down the main street to the edge of Ilford, and the trees are like ghosts. They’re grey and ashy. Most of the branches are gone, and none of them have leaves. There’s still soot on the forest floor.
Flett takes us to a gorgeous lodge they built for visitors to stay in, with an attached building for smudging in the back.
“That’s how close the fire came,” Flett says, pointing to the ashy treeline mere metres from the lodge. “We almost lost our buildings.”
Flett drives us to the other side of town near the airport and the garbage dump where there’s a large pile of gravel. He says that during the fire some people in town climbed to the top of the gravel pile to watch the flames and smoke get closer and closer to town.
For a while the firefighters and at least 10 water bombers were losing the battle against the 1,200 hectare fire, and eventually the town had to evacuate, beginning at 3:30 in the morning. For the people of Ilford, this didn’t just mean leaving their home – it also meant leaving their traditional land.
Ben Laliberty is a proud resident of Ilford. His parents and grandparents and ancestors before that lived there. It’s the thing he loves most about his hometown.
“Everyone was sad,” Ben says. “It’s emotional. You have to be there for yourself to experience that.”
I told Ben I had never experienced anything like that. I grew up in southwestern Ontario, where forest fires are infrequent and rarely get out of control. Visiting Ilford and talking to people about the fire exposed me to an experience I could not possibly understand, but so many all over the country have stories like this. Seemingly every summer there is a devastating forest fire somewhere in Canada. This summer, the fires in B.C. have been raging for weeks, forcing people to leave their homes and livelihoods behind. It’s unfathomable.
The firefighters and a good bout of rain saved Ilford, with its barking dogs and cool morning breezes, from destruction. The fire burned right up to the edge of town in almost every direction, and then stopped, as if the town had been carved out by some stroke of luck or divine intervention. And soon after, the people of Ilford were able to return home.
Ben says the wildlife that trappers depend on hasn’t bounced back yet. The dip in wildlife also affects those who traditionally hunt for food in the community. The burned trees haunt the edge of town, but underneath the brush is growing back through the ashes.
“Tomorrow is a brand new day,” says Ben. “Everything starts back up again.”
Click here to hear more about Ilford, the fire, and how the community is rebuilding: