From the ashes of my father’s house: A memoir from COP28

The St. Mary’s River wildfire this past summer destroyed seven homes and displaced residents in ʔaq̓am.

We drive along the reserve road under a gentle wisp of cloud upon a blue evening sky. The evening sky gives the burned silhouettes of trees an eerie presence. Gone is the heavy burden of smoke that held ʔaq̓am for the duration of the fire. Still, the air is pungent and hard to take in all at once — like a rumour that you believe could be true, but still hold hope that it is not. 

In early August 2023, ʔamakis Ktunaxa (Ktunaxa territory) is filled with families on vacation. In contrast, our family drives to our reserve at ʔaq̓am, near the town of Cranbrook, to see the damage from the recent wildfire. The hybrid engine is quiet and makes little sounds as we pass by the homes and forests unscathed by the blaze. But soon we come to the cusp of Rock Point, the epicentre of the fire, and we begin to see the incredible and unprecedented damage. We see homes taken by fire, others surrounded by burned trees and shrubs yet are still standing. Everything is familiar, but horrific.

Since the fire the power was cut off, refrigerators and freezers are now biohazards. They sit outside of each surviving home awaiting removal — resembling children dropped off at the wrong bus stop. The community’s power lines have been removed to ensure no further sparks create havoc and devastation. Some lines burned, others stayed in place, like empty sentinels upon a vista of black charred ground. Toothpick thin pine and poplar are scorched to death, yet still standing. 

We arrive on our land and see a new powerline recently installed by BC Hydro. Our families are not able to return to their homes, or what is left of them, and yet BC Hydro has already been there and left in familiar trespass. The reports are that a power line, which fell because of heavy wind, may have started the fire. But we still do not know for sure. 

We exit the car and we come face to face with the remnants of my family’s home. The loss is staggering — the indiscriminate order of what was taken and what remains. Small smoldering piles linger in blackened skeletal forests. Charred, blasted vehicles park beside patches of green grasses. Rez dogs howl. But no birds sing.

I look at the charred space that once held my father’s home. This house was the oldest in my family, built in 1970, and it housed generations of us. A home of permanence in a space of colonial displacement. Now, all that remains of that heirloom and legacy is a burned ruin. 

These stories, like ours, are becoming increasingly familiar. 

Homes to ashes. 

Memories to cinder. 

In total, the St. Mary’s River wildfire destroyed seven homes. People from ʔaq̓am were displaced for three weeks under evacuation order. And we’re just one community of many affected by worsening wildfires every single year. 

So much loss. So much grief. Tragedy upon tragedy. Who are we in the maelstrom? Can we know ourselves beyond survival? How impossible is a simple hope in a time of ashes? We tell each other to stay strong, but what is strength against the loss of memory, community and family? 

From the ashes of my father’s house, five months later, I went to COP28 looking for answers.

The St. Mary’s River wildfire left damage in its wake at ʔaq̓am.

Arriving to the conference

The United Nations Conference of the Parties — or COP28 — is an annual event where world leaders come together to discuss and strategize around the issue of climate change. For each year since 2015’s Paris Agreement, the urgency, demand and resistance to climate change policy has only intensified both worldwide and at home. This year, the conference took place between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12 in Dubai.

COP28 is about empowering international climate policy to reduce emissions. But it is also about representing power, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are powerful. Consider the sheer size, scale and ambition of the UAE hosting COP28. During the two-week conference, 70,000 people from 200 nations attended the largest international environmental gathering in the world’s history. At COP28, the UAE provided the first international contribution to a loss and damages fund to support those impacted by climate change. By the time of this reporting, that fund has reached nearly $750 million — or roughly the cost of one season of forest fires in British Columbia.

The UAE is only 52 years old. For generations the region was a British protectorate, under the authority of British policy. But that changed in 1971 when the UAE became an independent country, five years after the discovery of oil. As a nation, the UAE is younger than Star Trek, Led Zeppelin, Coronation Street, the Vancouver Canucks and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. 

After travelling for two days, flying across two continents, one ocean, a few seas, the Carpathian Mountains and the Persian Gulf, I arrived in Dubai just past midnight on December 2. The next day I went to COP28. The mid-morning Arabian sun poured down upon the clean, spotless asphalt as I awaited a bus to take me to the conference. The perfumed scents of jasmine, frankincense and oud wafted throughout the effortless breeze like a dream. 

Early December in Dubai is the cold season with highs only around 30 degrees. In mid-summer, the temperature routinely hits 45 degrees. Coming from the damp, cold, and beautifully lurid Pacific Northwest, the late autumn desert heat was all-encompassing and welcome. 

Dubai hosted Expo 2020 and the conference site was the size of a university, with multiple buildings, walkways and bus stops. I arrived at the “Opportunity Gate,” one of three public gates for the event. I had a Green Zone pass, which gives access to the public face of COP28. The more-exclusive Blue Zone pass is reserved for official delegates attending the negotiations. I showed my pass to gain access through a gaggle of security screenings and crowd control turnstiles.

This was the first day that the Green Zone was open, and the lineups were said to be huge as all the free, public tickets were sold out. However, the lines moved fast, and I was finally at COP28. I moved towards the first building I saw and I soon found myself in Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion. As I descended into the engrossing, air-conditioned displays of forests and oceans, I came across an exhibit that asks the question: “would you rather?” — presenting the public with theoretical choices on how to protect the environment. The choices ranged from the absurd — “save the earth or move to Mars?” — to the pointed end of climate choices such as “always have clean air or always have clean water?” and “save one big animal or save 100 tiny animals?” 

However poignant these choices are, they belie a deeper and brutal reality that many have run out of choices.

Can hyperbole exist when your house is on fire?

As I continued to make my way through the Green Zone, I tried to take COP28 in. The state of the art pavilions — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s awe-inspiring Saudi Green Initiative, or the China Pavilion with its obligatory inflated panda and the United Arab Emirates’s House of Sustainability — were all incredible to behold. 

Eventually, I entered the Innovation Hub. The Innovation Hub was a huge conference centre more similar to an industry trade show than an environmental conference. Here, there were numerous private interests representing insurance companies, surveillance and security firms, as well as Emirati state-owned businesses.

I walked through an exhibit that is hosted by one of these state-owned businesses — a health company. A guide approached me and invited me to walk through the exhibit’s darkened tunnel. The guide explained the impacts of climate change amid stark images and sounds. And then, as we came to the end of the exhibit, I saw a huge, illuminated sign reading: “Act As If Your House Is On Fire, Because It Is.”

I showed the guide a photo of my family’s burned home and she was shocked such a thing happened in Canada. I told her we also don’t have clean water, and she suggested I can get a filter on Amazon. I thanked her for the tour and moved on. 

A sign that was displayed during COP28.

As the day was nearing its end, I sought out the only permanent place for Indigenous Peoples at COP28’s Green Zone. After a few wrong turns and stops in the shade I found the Indigenous Peoples’ Ceremonial Circle — which resembled an arbour from back home, but smaller and without a roof. The Circle was empty, save for a conference worker taking a moment in the shade to eat his lunch. I took a seat too.

In that moment, I considered all of the voices from our communities who have yet to be heard. Back home, our arbours are filled in the spring and summer times. There are gatherings of Elders, Youth, and other community get-togethers where everyone walks away fed; often with a door prize and a chance at the 50/50. Seated here, alone, in the Indigenous Peoples Ceremonial Circle, I yearned to hear those voices rise above the stifling din of business as usual. 

The Indigenous Peoples’ Ceremonial Circle at COP28.

I realized it’s difficult to express the urgency of the moment without using hyperbole. Can hyperbole exist when your house is literally on fire? 

At home in ʔaq̓am, the devastating impact of the wildfire is still hard to fathom. The loss of homes in any circumstance is profound, but the impact for an on-reserve Indigenous community is truly catastrophic. At COP28, even King Charles III noted that “Canada experienced its most severe wildfire season on record, with 18.5 million hectares of land burned, killing, displacing and releasing carbon emissions” while stating that “I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another turning point of general action.”

2023 was the most expensive year in fighting forest fires in Canada — costing nearly a billion dollars. In British Columbia alone, nearly 25,000 square kilometres of forested areas burned, nearly doubling the burning record of 2018. 

And, in spite of the damage, many where I come from do not really believe in climate change. They believe environmentalists are just another group of condescending outsiders who want to tell Ktunaxa how to live their lives in their territory. They know that the policies of the privileged are not for them. And what is not for them is against them. 

Yet, they know the rivers have been poisoned by a series of mining companies, that the herds of deer and elk are declining, and that no one has seen migratory salmon since the creation of the hydro dams. How do these truths exist within the big-wig negotiations at COP28? Or more importantly, how are Ktunaxa and other Indigenous voices centred in a time of climate crisis?

I left the Green Zone, and got on the bus back to my hotel. As I sat at the back with a smattering of exhausted workers, I realized the perfumed scents of jasmine or oud I smelled when I first arrived were gone. Instead, here was the fragrance of sweat, exhaustion and the enduring will of humanity that underwrites the opulence of debate, posture and delay. Amid the bravado of COP28, the back of the bus still smelled like people being left behind.

The St. Mary’s River wildfire. Photo: BC Wildfire Service

Somewhere back home, I know, near the ashen roads and sooted neighbourhoods, there lay the bones of horses who knew a time when we did not know reserve, police or priest. I think of a time when the grasslands of our territory were waist high and stretched far past Golden to the north and far south into Idaho and Montana. When the forests on our lands were not toothpick tinderboxes grown for an industrial harvest, and our rivers offered clean water to drink from and not a ‘clean energy’ scheme of dams and lost salmon. 

I don’t know where this is all going. I fear for the forests of summers to come, when flame, smoke and ash become neighbours for all. Mostly, I think of the beauty of those herd of horses that once ran upon our lands. I close my eyes and envision them as they gather at the edge of night where sight fails and unknowing begins. And they wait for us to join them in a world beyond burning.

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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