STRATFORD, Ont. - Relieved to be called home as flood waters receded from their remote aboriginal community, Kashechewan residents taking refuge in southern Ontario couldn't shake the fear Tuesday that what's become an annual evacuation drama is eroding their way of life.
With flights home for hundreds of displaced residents set to depart Wednesday, evacuee Edward Sutherland said he was left with a feeling of helplessness.
"All my life, I've lived in Kashechewan," Sutherland said outside his temporary home, a community centre in Stratford, Ont., shared by more than 300 evacuees. "I grew up there, I hunt there - that's my community."
Sutherland had spent one night in Stratford along his wife Jackie and their two young children, Jamie and Natasha, and was already itching to leave. The 47-year old said he fears his culture could be lost, and that the futures of his children and grandchildren may be vastly different if their community can't survive.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "You fear for your family every spring and what's going to happen because you can't predict nature."
For some, the evacuation was a chance to get out of their small, isolated northern Ontario community and have some fun in a bigger city.
For many others, it was another depressing sign that their community may never be safe from flooding and could eventually be whittled away to nothing as residents tire of being regularly relocated and seek new lives elsewhere.
On Tuesday, Kashechewan Chief Jonathan Solomon determined the conditions in the community had improved and that residents could be returned home as quickly as possible, said Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources spokesman Barry Radford.
Flights home will begin Wednesday and "certainly by the weekend we should have that community returned," Radford said.
The emergency situation had not yet been called off for nearby Fort Albany, which has also evacuated hundreds of residents.
Stratford was prepared to accept as many as 1,100 residents from Kashechewan. Hundreds more evacuees from Kashechewan and other communities on the shores of James Bay have been put up at locations across the province.
It was the fourth flood-driven evacuation of Kashechewan since 2004.
Tyson Wesley, 18, said while the experience was fun, he knows from previous evacuations that the feeling wouldn't have lasted.
"It's good to leave your isolated community and move to a bigger place, experience something different," Wesley said at the community centre after an afternoon of exploring Stratford.
"But it gets kind of rough - I'm not comfortable with (this)," he said of his sleeping arrangements: a cot in a room with hundreds of others.
Rosy Sutherland, 38, had left Kashechewan before to seek other opportunities, but said it's hard to "assimilate" into Canadian society.
"It's not always the same," she said. "Societal institutions are different and the language is different.
"Plus at home there's the land and hunting and the air is cleaner."
Most residents wish the federal government would move their community to higher ground rather than trying to rebuild it and fortify it against the weather, Sutherland said.
"Even if they can rebuild it ... they can't (help) our frustrations and our fears," he said.
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said a $500-million move to higher ground up the Albany River - the First Nation's preferred option - doesn't solve the underlying problem because the new location would still be on the flood plain.
Still, millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements in the existing community have proved a success, Strahl said.
"The floods this year, although (they) obviously made people nervous, in the end the improvements we already made to the dikes and other improvements did prevent major damage in the community," Strahl said.
"We think the plan that's in place will work. It will protect the community."
Stratford, which has a population of about 32,000 and is best known for its annual Shakespeare festival, was a good fit to accept evacuees because it has emergency facilities and plans in place and isn't too large of a city, said Ron McKay, the warden of Perth County.
"They didn't want to take these people to Kitchener or London or a huge, huge city," he said. "They wanted it to be in smaller area to be a little more familiar to them."
Evacuees couldn't be put up in hotels or motels because the theatre season is just about to get started, he added.