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

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you to the witnesses, not only for being here today but for the really important work you do every day.

I'm from Kamloops, British Columbia, and I remember hopping on a flight back to Ottawa on the morning of July 7, and life was calm. I arrived here, and all of a sudden we had a very difficult challenge facing us. I don't think we could breathe a sigh of relief until the Labour Day weekend with the actual acute crisis we were facing. We still have some post issues to deal with.

I'll give my first question to both people. There is a pretty good consensus around the national indigenous fire marshal's office. Would you say that in indigenous communities across this country this is a well-supported concept? The second part of that question is whether that would be step one and for step two a priority would be legislation.

12:35 p.m.

President, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Arnold Lazare

Yes, there is a consensus that a fire marshal's office is beneficial. We're currently in the consultation stage. We have done studies to look at the fire programs, and the initiation of a fire marshal's office keeps recurring. Once again, by looking at getting consistency across the country, the standard is going to be created. As we move along, the other agencies will see the benefit. We're confident that it will roll much faster in consistency and buy-in. Once again, it's important to get the buy-in of the chiefs, and we need to change the outlook.

12:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

We've identified one of the challenges we're working on right now. We did our first presentation to the Assembly of First Nations National Housing and Infrastructure Forum in Montreal last week, and the number one thing that came up is funding and the protection of funding. I know the number one job of Brent Langlois, my colleague from finance and the executive director, is to maintain funding and ensure that programs and services aren't cut.

One of the things we need to do is make sure that, as part of our mandate to create a new organization, we're not stealing any funding. For decades now it's been a limited pot, and whenever you accomplish something new, the number one concern is where it's going to come from and who is going to lose. Certainly, in our discussions with the minister's office and staff, our mandate is that we're not going to steal anybody else's funding, and we won't offset.

We will be collaborating with the regional organizations. They've done some fantastic work, and if anything, we can take advantage. The number one goal of the office is to not have an executive director in any region, who has an existing emergency services organization that's doing good work, worry about whether they can do that good work next year. Again, as a former executive director who had to go through the switches being cut off, it impacted the community.

One of our biggest challenges in emergency services is that there are not a lot of professional first nations practitioners out there. Whether it be with fire, emergency management, or public safety, there are very few jobs. Also, the few jobs and the few trained people we can get are easily stolen by mainstream. We recognize that, even if we can create a structure and an organization that is not well-funded but just adequately funded, we can't compete with mainstream fire. It is one of the best-paid employment services one can get into now. We know this is going to be a constant challenge, but I think we're up to the challenge, because we're all getting old. We have to train the next generation.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Jeff, do you have anything to add to that? Would you say there are good services?

Curtis.

12:40 p.m.

Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Curtis Dick

I wanted to share a couple of things in regard to what Blaine is talking about. I do fire prevention governance workshops with chiefs and councils, and it's really tough to say that there are no standards that are practised that we follow in regard to fire protection in the community, especially with fire protection governance. It would be nice to see this standard put in place because a lot of first nations, region to region, are going to differ a little bit. What applies on the west coast may not apply here in Ottawa.

It's going to be really interesting to see if this will benefit a lot of first nations communities. That way, they'll have a base level of fire protection coverage, period.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

My next question is on the wildfire response. We heard about some community members being very reluctant to leave their communities. We heard about their knowledge, and I also heard that from cattlemen, that they know their land, and they want to stay and protect it. They don't want to be evacuated.

I understand that Australia has a very good program. You talked about what didn't work well in Australia, but I understand that they have a sort of certification program where, whether it be ranchers or whether it be communities, they can have a basic level of training and be certified, and then there's a greater comfort level with community members staying in their community.

Are you aware of anything there? I know the cattlemen talked about that.

12:40 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

I'm sorry, I didn't catch the first part. I believe you were talking about training standards.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Apparently there's a program in Australia where they are not typically people who are on the front lines of a fire, whether they are the cattlemen or people in communities, where they train them to a very basic level and then when the evacuation orders happen—

12:40 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Yes. The way the system works in Australia is that, basically, if it's a city, they run it themselves. Outside the city, it's the state fire service. Whether it's an aboriginal community, an incorporated community, or an unincorporated community, it's the state fire service that runs it.

Basically, it's the field of dreams concept. We'll build it, and you come. The state runs the fire service there. They do all the training standards. If we had that equivalent system here, where a province ran the fire service, and any first nations community said, “We want a fire department”, or a non-first nations community, the province would then come in and provide the equipment, the infrastructure, the training, and it's a set standard.

I'll use an example of one of the states that said they were having a problem with volunteerism in the fire service. I asked what their numbers were, and they said it was about 300,000. I thought that was incredible.“Your country has 300,000?” They said, “No, no, the state has 300,000.” We don't have 200,000 or approximately 200,000 volunteer firefighters in the country. They're doing a much better job at running it, but they do it state-wide, and the funding isn't an issue. It's not a fight. It's not a jurisdictional issue. There's one standard.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you very much.

MP Blaney, welcome to our committee. We'll give you a chance to ask some questions.

November 7th, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Thank you.

Thank you all so much for being here and sharing that important information with us today.

I want to start off by saying that you talked about not being about to compete with mainstream, that you just want to be paid adequately, not well. I was thinking how many groups of people would say something like that. I definitely hope to see that reviewed and changed.

You also talked today about a lack of standard equipment and regional disparity. We know that in many areas there are limited infrastructure amenities for firefighters. We have heard of communities without fire trucks or even access to water.

Could you tell us what infrastructure concerns you face regularly and what top three priorities you have for the federal government?

12:45 p.m.

President, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Arnold Lazare

In terms of the top goal, it is fire prevention. Even in the best-served community, if the occupants of a house or an apartment don't know what to do, you're going to have fire deaths.

In first nations communities, when coupled with housing issues, if there's a fire, the death rate is higher. One big goal is to ensure that every community has a fire prevention champion. It doesn't necessarily have to be a firefighter. A lot of times, we use the schools, but we need to make sure that the children of the community are aware. I often refer to a small community two hours north of us. They had a fire. The child hid in the closet and unfortunately, succumbed to the smoke.

The fire department went out and bought a $15,000 thermal imaging camera. It's a very nice piece of equipment, but it would not save lives. We suggested that he take $500 and hire somebody for a week to make sure that there's a full fire prevention program in the school, so that the kids would know not to hide. These are concrete items that we look at and we advocate for.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

Thank you. Does anybody else want to answer?

12:45 p.m.

Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Curtis Dick

I also want to add that part of our training and education for first nations communities was that our organization handed out over 26,000 smoke alarms and also fire extinguishers in B.C.

We reiterate that you don't need a fire department to have a community champion. When a community champion has that education to provide to the rest of the community on an ongoing basis—we follow up on a monthly or bimonthly basis. We follow up with them to make sure that they're implementing these programs that we went and taught these people to spread throughout their community. It's also with the schools, as well. Whether you're fire department or not, we provide the same education to everybody.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

In this committee, there's a lot of talk about the right to free, prior, and informed consent regarding issues that impact indigenous communities. Could you tell us about the engagement process between different levels of government and indigenous people in terms of creating management, prevention, and recovery plans?

12:45 p.m.

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

Jeff Eustache

The Leadership Council of the first nations in B.C. are actively involved in the recommendations that come through that. We are in a process through FNESS, the First Nations Leadership Council, and Emergency Management BC. We are actively working towards some of those recommendations of engagement with first nations.

It could be a little bit stronger on the prevention and wildfire suppression end of things, but I know FNESS is actually working with our First Nations Leadership Council to ensure those recommendations are implemented.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

I am also aware that some communities have people called land managers, rangers, and keepers. You talked about the multiple roles that you play in your community and many communities have people doing that work, but how often it's put to the side of the desk.

Could you just tell us a little bit about what resources are needed, so that all those issues don't get put to the side of the desk all the time?

12:45 p.m.

Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Curtis Dick

First of all, depending on the size of the community, if they've got somebody with the passion to do it, identify that champion and building from there. Once you find that champion in the community, other people start stepping forward. You lead by example within the community and you find that champion to build that, whether it's the fire department or whether it's wildfire services in your community. There's the capacity building right there. Once you've identified and endorsed them by the chief and council and by an organization, you get all the support you need and you build from there.

It's just identifying those people. Our organization has been fortunate enough to know those people. We're the boots-on-the-ground organization that is able to identify those people.

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Rachel Blaney NDP North Island—Powell River, BC

There was a lot of talk from both of you about design by first nations for first nations. I am just wondering whether you have any best or promising practices that you've seen in different communities that we could celebrate and share today.

12:50 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Yes, and it would be remiss of us not to say that not all first nations have a challenge with capacity. There are many good examples in B.C. of very robust fire service. I think that is the challenge we deal with. In the evolution of fire service, we had first nations really pushing our leaders—some of them sit on boards now and do that leadership role—in the seventies and eighties for funding for fire service, because even then it wasn't a part of federal funding.

We had communities that didn't know a lot about fire service and a federal government that didn't know a whole lot about fire service. The end result was about 30 years of focus just on fire suppression, not the rest of the fire service. Fire suppression accounts for about 2% of the fire service. In terms of firefighters' time, what firefighters go and do to fight fires is 2%, while 98% is around safe buildings, public education, fire prevention, building inspections, and preplanned examinations. We're playing catch-up, and that's really what we need to do.

When we talk about standards, it's around standards for the fire service, and again, it's about building on the capacity that exists regionally and within the communities. As Curtis articulated, we don't necessarily need fire departments in each community. What we need are fire risk management, fire plans, and good prevention. That's what saves lives, especially in rural and remote areas, regardless of whether it's first nations or not first nations. If you don't prevent fires, a rural fire department very rarely gets to save a life or a building.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

The questioning now moves to MP Amos.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to our witnesses. As Mr. Bossio said, this really has been an education today.

I was particularly taken with the testimony around the incredible value that traditional knowledge can add to firefighting techniques across the country.

I'd like to offer you the opportunity to expand on those remarks, because I think that Canadians in general have a lot more to appreciate about just what kind of knowledge is passed down generation after generation, knowledge that isn't just about an immediate environment, but about an entire landscape and hundreds of kilometres. How would you characterize the opportunities for firefighting services across the country to learn from indigenous firefighting knowledge?

12:50 p.m.

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

Jeff Eustache

I'll speak from the fire perspective as the chief did earlier. There's a lot of knowledge around fire and fire behaviour, and how a fire reacts to certain conditions. A lot of the first nations have a lot of that knowledge in terms of when the fire is coming, based on their local knowledge of how that fire is going to behave and react to certain weather events and topography. They have a lot of knowledge about how to do that, how to react to that, and when is the right time, as the chief mentioned earlier, to respond to that fire.

There's a lot of that fire behaviour knowledge about how to suppress fires and also how to work with fires, even on prescribed burning. There hasn't been a lot of prescribed burning in B.C. over the last 60 years or more, and that's probably resulted in a lot of the problems we're having today with the intensity of the fires where the forest has grown or has grown in certain areas in the province.

First nations used to burn regularly. We haven't had the ability to do that for quite some time, so on prescribed burning, prevention, and suppression, there's a lot of knowledge in our communities that we can work with. Even in responding on the emergency side, there are a lot of cultural-type perspectives that need to be incorporated into emergency response and planning. There are a lot of issues with taking people out, a lot of cultural things that go behind that in how people react to leaving the community.

Those are the ideas that I have around traditional knowledge.

12:55 p.m.

Fire Services Officer, First Nations' Emergency Services Society

Curtis Dick

If I may, I want to share a quick story. I was in northern B.C. last year. In the community I went to, they talked about wildfires.

There was an old guy who sat in his field and set it on fire. I guess he had quite a big field, and as he let it burn, the forestry ministry and the wildland firefighters showed up and were all getting nervous. They asked if he knew his field was on fire. He said, “Yes, I do.” He was sitting there having a sandwich. As he sat there with his sandwich, those guys were making a plan to attack the fire, saying where they going to build a guard. He very calmly told them to just leave it, that it would be okay. He had been doing this for probably 30 or 40 years, but the ministry and the wildland firefighters didn't come and introduce themselves and ask what he had been doing to protect his property while it was still standing.

It's the lack of communication that's happening. For the stuff that Jeff's been talking about, the wildland burning that's been happening for years, how many communities do we know that are actually doing that? We have to step outside the box and say, “Let's introduce ourselves to our neighbours, and let's not wait until an event happens.”

Thank you.

12:55 p.m.

Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada

Blaine Wiggins

Just very quickly to add, I think we have to look at it historically and for many first nations communities, where they are now is not where they were but where they were put. They put themselves in the right places and safe places. In many cases, where they were put now has put them in harm's way. Of course, through federal policies we have to admit we have lost a lot of our history, some of our culture, some of our languages. So some of that traditional knowledge has been lost but for much of it, especially if you get into rural environments, it's just about being willing to ask and being willing to listen. There's so much that can be learned before and during events from first nations communities.