Evidence of meeting #82 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was fires.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Richard Kent  Commissioner, Emergency and Protective Services, Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management
Peter Beatty  Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations
Blaine Wiggins  Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada
Arnold Lazare  President, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada
Jeff Eustache  Manager, Forest Fuel Management Department, First Nations' Emergency Services Society
Curtis Dick  Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Noon

Liberal

Salma Zahid Liberal Scarborough Centre, ON

Chief Beatty, would you like to add to this?

Noon

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

The resources that are needed in each of our communities, especially the ones with road access.... I'll talk about structural fires as opposed to forest fires. For structural fires, basically what you need is a fire hall and a fire truck, as well as trained personnel and the proper equipment to address a structural fire, a house fire.

We didn't have that in our major community in Pelican Narrows. On their own initiative, the community put together money to purchase a fire truck, and then I believe they worked with Indigenous and Northern Affairs in trying to acquire a fire hall, which they are in the process of doing. This was after we lost a number of young people, children, to house fires. We didn't have the proper equipment. We didn't have a fire truck. We had nothing other than the fire hydrants, because there is a water system in place. There are no trained volunteer or paid firefighters.

Another community is going along the same lines, the community of Southend Reindeer, which is 222 kilometres north of Lac la Ronge, on the south end of Reindeer Lake. Thankfully, they have been able to get funding for a small fire hall. They are in the process of getting a fire truck as well, and getting structural firefighters trained to use that equipment properly and to be able to respond.

In terms of our reserve communities, where we live on reserve, we have first nations firefighters who are funded by the province, but they react to fires only when they're allowed to by the province. They're not really under the direct control of the local leaders. That's something we need to work on as well.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you so much for your presentations. It was very informative, especially from a chief who comes from a community where people were evacuated last year.

Thank you again, meegwetch, for coming out.

We'll suspend the meeting for a couple of minutes and then come back for the next panellists.

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I'd ask members to reconvene quickly so we can get a robust discussion from our panellists, who are representing the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada and the First Nations' Emergency Services Society.

Both groups will have up to 10 minutes to present. After that, we'll go into a series of questions from the MPs.

Go ahead, Blaine.

12:05 p.m.

Blaine Wiggins Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Good afternoon, and thank you for having us here.

Again, I'd like to acknowledge the unceded territory of the Algonquin people.

My name is Blaine Wiggins. I am a Tyendinaga Mohawk from the Bay of Quinte and also the executive director for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada. I live in a small community just north of Williams Lake, B.C., so I've had some first-hand experience as a community member, a volunteer firefighter, a professional emergency service practitioner, and an evacuee during the fire season.

I'd like to introduce our president, Arnold Lazare.

12:05 p.m.

Arnold Lazare President, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

[Witness speaks in Mohawk]

I've given you greetings in Mohawk.

My name is Arnold Lazare. I'm a Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke. I'm currently the director of public safety for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. I'm also president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association.

I'd like to thank you, Madam Chair and honourable members, for having us here today. As Blaine mentioned, he has experienced evacuation, so I'll turn this back to him.

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Thank you, Arnold.

We often get asked, especially after events, what the problem or the main concern is, and what the challenges are within first nations communities in the fire service and emergency services. The problem with the question is that there is an expectation that it's a simple question and there is a simple answer. The reality is that nobody wants to listen occasionally to the long answer.

Several years ago, we sat down as a national organization with representation from emergency services across Canada, and the one thing we asked ourselves was, “Would more resources resolve the issues we are dealing with?” We came to the quick conclusion that no amount of resources would have different outcomes than we already have if we don't change the way we are doing things. When I say “we”, I mean all of us: first nations communities, the federal government, and provincial governments. Since we had that discussion, several years ago, although we have been working very hard to educate, bring awareness, and bring a strategy, the reality is that our outcomes have not changed dramatically.

I know we have a very short time, so I won't get into details, but these are some of the issues that we identified as problems. One is disparity of resources from region to region. There are have regions and have-not regions. We have a lack of data collection. Data collection isn't just about collecting information; it's about deciding what we need to do and how we need to respond to that, which is a fundamental aspect of fire prevention and fire safety for any community. We have no established coordination of fire services, although there is established forestry coordination, and some of that does involve first nations fire crews. What is left out is municipal fire services, and specifically first nations fire services.

Each province has fire protection legislation. Our first nations communities are not afforded any type of fire protection legislation, which includes linkages to building codes and fire life safety codes. It's also important to note that although this is a strong pillar that supports protecting our communities and our citizens, any type of legislation needs to be designed by first nations and for first nations. We are in the process of actively engaging the Assembly of First Nations and the national housing and infrastructure chiefs to seek support and a mandate to address this specific gap, among others.

As I indicated, we sat down several years ago and we defined and focused on four specific areas that we feel would address many of the issues in first nations communities related to fire and fire safety. Fire prevention is the biggest one. Again, I could spend hours talking about just this one issue. There is a lack of fire prevention, and a lack of focus on fire prevention.

I spoke briefly about legislative standards. Legislative standards alone aren't the answer. It's the ability of first nations communities to have the resources and the capacity to utilize those standards.

On fire service operations, again, we have no standards across Canada, or even within regions, when it comes to basic things like training and equipment. We don't do environmental scans. We don't have robust fire protection programs. We don't have community infrastructure support. We have challenges with volunteerism. The majority of fire services in first nations communities are based on volunteers. We have very few paid fire services in first nations communities. Again, these are just some very small examples.

The last area that we are focusing on is national coordination of aboriginal fire services. We haven't rested on our laurels and come up with a great idea. We've been working very hard. As an example, we continually have discussions to gain support and seek and share information back with our national partners, including the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association, the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and the National Fire Protection Association, just to name a few groups that we work proactively with.

Other areas for national coordination include emergency medical services. Many of our first nations communities are located a long way from higher-care medical. There is a gap there, even on who is coordinating and offering emergency medical services.

I won't repeat some of our previous witnesses, but the issue around emergency management is a very, very big issue.

Again, just speaking really quickly—I don't want to take up all of my colleagues' time—some of the issues we saw this summer were the lack of response to first nations communities within British Columbia, which is where I'm based; and some of the fire departments were not permitted to protect their own fire departments, including first nations fire departments. While doing their best efforts to enforce and protect evacuated zones, both police and military impeded fire, and health and safety services.

While the fires are over, we still have the impacts post-event. There were some major gaps, not just during the event, but during preplanning. This is one of the things that can go wrong, just the inability to do a preplan. Once a fire or incident is in play, we can see some catastrophic events. We're very fortunate that we haven't see them here in Canada yet, and I emphasize the “yet”. All of our focus has to be around—again I'm repeating some of my colleagues—building capacity within first nations.

If I can very quickly share a story, I was the executive director for the First Nations' Emergency Services, so I know my colleagues here very well. In 2009, I was invited to Australia to work with the federal government to basically showcase how we, as an aboriginal organization, work with federal and provincial governments to improve emergency management within first nations communities. Unfortunately, I arrived in early February 2009, during the catastrophic fires we had. I was able to see first-hand how not having this capacity in place can have devastating impacts.

We saw that just recently in California. We are seeing a much different environment now. We are seeing much different fire behaviour now.

If I can just leave off, while the fires are over, the post-event of those fires, the psychosocial impacts, the economic impacts, the health impacts, the ongoing impacts, the ability to gather traditional foods, and hunting, are ongoing. Again, I lived this first-hand every day where I live.

I'll turn it over to my colleague for any final comments.

12:15 p.m.

President, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Arnold Lazare

AFAC has been advocating since 1992. We are very pleased that the government announced last February the implementation of an indigenous fire marshal's office. I'm not going to read the pamphlet to you, but it explains our goals. At the end of the day, our intention is to create capacity within first nations communities.

We're not in the business of getting into business. We're in the business of getting ourselves out of business. My home community is a “have” community, so we have some good examples of what to do. We're partnering up with many agencies, as Blaine has mentioned, to look at what worked and what didn't work. We're confident that with everybody working, we're going to effect positive change. More importantly, by building capacity within, the communities will be better served, by themselves for themselves.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Excellent.

I'm going to move over to the next presenters. You have 10 minutes to present, and then we'll get into questioning.

November 7th, 2017 / 12:15 p.m.

Jeff Eustache Manager, Forest Fuel Management Department, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Thank you, Chair, and honourable members of the committee, and the host nation of the Algonquins.

My name is Jeff Eustache. I'm a registered forest technologist with First Nations' Emergency Services. I'm also the manager of the forest fuel management department.

I give my regrets for our executive director, Brent Langlois who could not attend today.

I'll turn it over to Curtis, for his introduction as well.

12:15 p.m.

Curtis Dick Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Good morning, everybody.

Thank you for being here and allowing me to be here.

12:15 p.m.

Manager, Forest Fuel Management Department, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Jeff Eustache

I'll give you a quick overview of what we witnessed during the 2017 wildfires.

They came about very quickly this past summer in B.C. In May and June, we had a very unusual wet weather event that created much flooding through the interior of B.C. That's when the emergency response kicked in for many first nations. That was quickly followed by a very dry unusual weather event for the rest of June that resulted in a severe wildfire risk.

On July 7, fires ignited in the Kamloops and Caribou regions of B.C. It caught everybody a bit off guard, I believe. They just happened so quickly that it created a significant impact to the communities in both those areas, first nations and non-first nations alike.

I'll give you a quick snapshot of FNESS. We're a non-profit society in the interior of B.C., managed by our first nations board of directors. We offer structural wildfire prevention, fuel management services, emergency management, response recovery, and planning. We are just getting into that again this year. We do critical stress incident counselling through a contract with the First Nations Health Authority. We also provide training, education, and awareness in the areas of wildfire suppression, governance, and leadership.

With regard to emergency management, wildfire prevention, and suppression by first nations, over the last few years the Province of B.C., the federal government, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada have been working on an agreement for the province, through Emergency Management BC to look after emergency response planning on federal lands for first nations in B.C.

Our First Nations Leadership Council, which is comprised of the Assembly First Nations, B.C. region; First Nations Summit; and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has been working diligently with first nations communities, FNESS, and other organizations for the implementation of that agreement.

It's quite a significant agreement where the three parties would actively engage in the response with regard to management planning. The Province of B.C., through the B.C. Wildfire Service and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada also have an agreement where B.C. Wildfire Service provides fire suppression on first nations lands in the event of wildfires.

In summary, the events that occurred this past wildfire season occurred so quickly that the ability to effectively respond, with current agreements noted above, created issues for the provincial and federal governments, and first nations agencies and organizations. There were significant structural losses to first nations homes and assets. Wildfire suppression and emergency management response efforts were also tested and many issues resulted. There are provincial and federal reviews occurring and planned over the winter and spring of 2017-18 related to prevention, suppression, and emergency response.

It is very clear that the first nations organizations, First Nations Leadership Council, FNESS, and first nations communities need to be engaged and involved at all levels to ensure that first nations communities and organizations have direct and meaningful involvement in planning and decision-making, and resourced for effective engagement to ensure these agreements work effectively in future years.

There are various documents from the First Nations Leadership Council that we can make available to the committee with regard to resolutions our leadership has passed over the years to ensure that effective engagement occurs with the provincial and federal governments.

Many of the presentations earlier, by the chief and other presenters this morning, were similar to what happened in B.C. Basically, the events occurred so quickly, it was difficult for those agreements to be implemented effectively. Some of the communities had a bit of difficulty engaging with Emergency Management BC on the implementation of that response and recovery. It provided some issues for the first nations to get access to those resources through EMBC and the federal government. I must admit that first nations did very well with some of those challenges.

There were also challenges around the suppression agreement. We have first nations communities that have the training capacity, and the ability to respond to wildfires. Unfortunately, because they are not engaged in that agreement with the province and the federal government, they had an inability to get suppression crews directly onto their doorsteps to fight those fires.

Many of the first nations communities declined evacuation orders and stayed behind to fight those wildfires. I think if they had not made that decision, there would have been greater losses to their first nations communities.

They do have that ability to fight the fires. What they don't have is the ability to actively engage in those agreements. Also, with the agreement with the EMBC for emergency response and planning, I think we need to do a little more work in that area so the first nations communities are available to implement those agreements before they happen, in terms of the preplanning preparation.

A lot of first nations communities in B.C. don't have resources when it comes to emergency management. They have a lot of emergency management plans, but when you don't have the resources to implement or work them, you're basically taking them off the shelf during an event.

A lot of things occurred to the province, and there are going to be many reviews over the next few months and into the spring in regard to what occurred. We suggest that the first nations be actively involved in all those reviews at the local community, regional, and provincial levels, to ensure that first nations are well-prepped and involved in decision-making on how these resources are deployed for future events, and that the preparation is there for our first nations communities.

We have the organizations, the capacity, and the resources in the first nations communities, whether it is wildfire suppression or structural fire protection. We just don't have the ability to have them deployed immediately, so we'd like to see some of that occur in the future.

I want to read off a reference that one of our staff members gave me in terms of recommendations. First nations communities need to change—and I don't think the wording should be “to change”. I think the process has to change from victims who are protected into resources that are utilized, so that we can effectively utilize the communities and resources that we have.

We have gone through many years of training, capacity, and skill development. We just need that opportunity to have those crews implement that training on the ground when these events occur.

Those are some of the biggest points I wanted to make today. I'm not sure if Curtis has anything more to add.

12:25 p.m.

Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Curtis Dick

Sure. Thank you, honourable members. I'd like to add a couple of things, first to build on the resource capacity of our community members.

As fire chiefs in communities, we're often billed as the go-to person during an emergency, whether that's emergency coordinator or fire chief. Not only that, you're also the maintenance director, you're also the housing supervisor, wearing many different hats as one person. That's not always at the forefront of their job description. It's at the side of their desk, and they're saying, “I'll have to get to it.” We're being very reactive as opposed to proactive.

I don't want to talk about everything the guys have already mentioned, sort of beating it to death. More importantly, we have to recognize the capacity within first nations communities. I recently went to an emergency coordinators conference in Vancouver and I read in one of the opening statements, “despite having taught first nations communities”. We have a lot to teach, as well. We need people to come and see what we're capable of doing. We don't have all the toys that many municipalities have. We don't have the ladder trucks. We don't have all that stuff, but more importantly, we have human resources. We have local knowledge. We know exactly where the fires are going to burn from, when the winds change, what the water conditions are like. We have all that local history that is not documented in these plans.

We need to be active. We need to be active partners in this, rather than just people. Like Jeff said, we don't want to be the victims, we want to be the resources in the communities. We're able to help as well, that's what I'm saying.

Thank you.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

Questioning begins with MP Bossio.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I thank all of you so much for being here today. I had the great honour of meeting Mr. Wiggins, Mr. Lazare, and Mr. Kent earlier this spring. We were discussing this very topic around fire safety. I thank all of you for being here today to provide further information and to help educate all of us on the importance of a fire marshal in particular.

Chair, could you let me know when I have one minute, because I have another question I would like to ask on the emergency front?

What void do you see the fire marshal being able fulfill within indigenous communities?

12:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Probably one of the biggest voids that will be filled is addressing inconsistency and bringing consistency to issues like public education. Many of our first nations communities have no public education, no fire education, no fire prevention. If we talk about emergency management, while the idea has not been really flushed out, I believe there's an opportunity for an indigenous fire marshal's office to support both regional organizations and communities.

If I can use an example, from region to region to region—I know my esteemed colleague Mr. Kent talked extensively about Saskatchewan. They have a fantastic program for emergency management there. I draw on my experience in 2009, when I returned from Australia, and we had a catastrophic fire season in B.C. At that time, FNESS had a very robust emergency management division that supported first nations communities, both the communities that had high capacity and the communities that had low capacity, so we could bring consistency. I believe during that fire season, over 50 FNESS personnel were deployed to various fires in the Williams Lake area, the Tsilhqot'in area, and the Lillooet area, and they were there not to do things but to work with the communities and to address the small gaps.

I'll utilize an example. Because we had fire behaviour rules, all the community needed was just somebody to help them do some preplanning around fire behaviour. They could do the rest, the emergency social services. They had an emergency plan in place. Then we moved ahead a couple of years and the regional director general of B.C. unfortunately decided to disband that program and eliminate the funding. These are very, very knowledgeable people. I've had the opportunity to work with them in the field. I worked with them this summer in emergency centres in the communities, but when you're doing stuff off the side of your desk to try to help communities help themselves, it doesn't lend itself to consistency.

Again, our organization isn't about building an empire; it's about building capacity within communities. I would just note that AFAC is basically the regional organization, so FNESS is a member of AFAC. The Prince Albert Grand Council is a member of AFAC. We're an organization of organizations, and it's ultimately all about consistency.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Is it also not the fact, though, as you mentioned in your speech, that there is no fire protection legislation for first nations communities? There is no fire marshal for first nations communities and the provincial fire marshals have no jurisdiction within first nations communities.

12:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

No, and as an example, in the province of B.C., there's an emergency management act that requires capacity within non-first nations communities. When a first nations community signs a modern-era treaty, then it is required to engage in that, but for the majority of first nations communities—and, again, we have to understand that there are haves and have-nots. There are communities dependent on INAC funding and there are communities that have been able to develop a local economy. A majority of our first nations communities are in rural and remote places where we're developing a local economy, developing local taxation, developing local capacities. There is some fantastic traditional knowledge. I really articulate and echo the sentiments. When I was deployed to Terrace during the 2007 floods, I went from community to community to draw on traditional knowledge about floods, and that actually helped our response. That helped the federal government, which I was working with at the time, and Emergency Management BC, to develop responses.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I'm sorry to cut you off, but that means there's no one working on building codes, no one working on fire prevention and, as you already mentioned, no one working on education. There are so many different facets that the fire marshal's office will cover to offer, as you mentioned as well, consistent processes and legislative framework across the county that can play a pivotal role so that you won't have the disparities that exist from one region to another to another.

12:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Yes, and the major difference between emergency management and fire is that fire is about behaviour and infrastructure. Emergency management is about capacity, preplanning, and expectation, and about knowing what to do when the time comes, and not trying to figure it out as it's happening.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I see I have a minute left, and you just segued perfectly into the emergency side. You hit on a really perfect point. Given that climate change is happening and these extreme weather events are going to become more and more frequent—the one-in-100-year storms are now happening every three to five years—it becomes imperative not only that we be prepared, and that we work with indigenous communities in order for indigenous communities to define what is best going to protect their communities, but also that we utilize the indigenous knowledge and the institutional knowledge within government and within the communities in order to even better define how we can best protect indigenous communities.

12:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Yes. At the end of the day the win is when first nations can do for themselves, and as articulated, if nobody is coming to help, help ourselves.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Not only will they help themselves but they'll even help educate us, because not just indigenous communities are being affected in a lot of these remote areas.

12:35 p.m.

Manager, Forest Fuel Management Department, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Jeff Eustache

I think that's where it's very important that the first nations organizations and communities are actively involved in the reviews that are going on in B.C. in planning prevention and emergency management for future years.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

The questioning goes to MP McLeod.