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

November 7th, 2017 / 11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Good morning, everyone. This is the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are beginning our study on wildfires in first nations communities.

In the first panel from 11 o'clock to 12 o'clock, we have the Assembly of First Nations and Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management, represented by Richard Kent who I see here. Because you're prompt, you get to go first.

You get 10 minutes to present, then we'll hear from the other presenter, if they're here, and then we do a series of questions.

The first thing we do, especially now that we're in a process of truth and reconciliation, is to recognize that we're on unceded Algonquin territory. It reminds us that we're in the process of a land claims study to look at the most important relationship, and the first relationship, the contracts that we made with the first peoples of this nation.

Richard, welcome. I'm so glad that you travelled from Saskatchewan, I'm assuming.

11:05 a.m.

Richard Kent Commissioner, Emergency and Protective Services, Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management

Thank you, Chair and honourable members of the committee. I thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to speak to the very important issue of fire safety and emergency management in our first nations communities. I am accompanied by Peter A. Beatty, chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Saskatchewan.

Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on unceded traditional Algonquin territory.

I will begin by briefly describing how I have organized my office and its operations to support my mandate of providing emergency preparedness and fire safety training to all of Saskatchewan's first nations people and communities.

My office conducts a range of activities in support of Saskatchewan's first nations communities. I have organized it into two divisions.

First is fire and safety. We provide community training in all aspects of structural and wildland/urban interface firefighting. We provide advanced training in other areas such as auto extrication, water and ice rescue training, confined space, and a multitude of other training, depending on the community's needs. We provide fire prevention programs with the communities as well. We perform fire investigations and fire inspections for Head Start and day care buildings.

Next is emergency preparedness and response. We provide all aspects of emergency preparedness training to all of Saskatchewan’s first nations communities. We also respond to emergencies in communities, when called upon to do so by the elected officials. We will set up and help to run a community or regional operation centre when it's requested by an elected official. We provide support and guidance to communities affected by emergencies, as well as act in a liaison capacity between the communities and other municipal, provincial, or federal agencies involved in the emergency.

In terms of human resources, my office has a total of eight positions, one of which is currently vacant at this time. I have four staffers for fire and safety training, and four staffers for emergency preparedness training and response.

I'll now address our challenges. I am going to read from an article by Professor James Waldram, of the University of Saskatchewan, who did a study on the Wollaston Lake fire and evacuation. He said, "...the irony is clear: the disaster of which many residents spoke pertains not to the threat of wildfire, but to the efforts to protect them from it.”

As emergencies continue to become more and more prevalent across Canada within our first nations communities, we need to ensure that all of our fist nations communities across Canada have the proper training and people in place to ensure the least amount of disruption to these communities. To do this we must ensure that sufficient support structures are put in place to manage these emergencies properly.

We must also ensure that we understand the effects that chronic disruptions to community life can have on these communities long after repatriation. In my opinion, a support staff of four for over 100 communities in Saskatchewan does not meet the requirements to ensure safe community readiness in either fire safety or emergency preparedness.

The other challenge is that the funding that is received for the staffing level of eight is on a year-to-year basis and is obviously not very conducive for qualified staff hiring or retention.

In my role as vice-president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, AFAC, we have been leading a project to design and build a national fire marshal’s office in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations leadership and staff, regional first nations partners, and key allies.

Our tribal council stands firmly in support of the creation of this office as long as its development is guided by first nations. We feel it is very important that the office is designed by us, for us. This office could ensure that proper standards and codes are being met and followed, which in turn would help to ensure adequate standards for our first nations communities and their levels of preparedness in the emergencies field in the following ways: remove regional disparity; develop national standards for emergency services within first nations; provide needed fire prevention focus; support regional and community incident response; build a base of first nations emergency services expertise; gather incident data to be used to redefine what needs to be changed, enhanced, or supplemented in first nations emergency services; and help to ensure adequate funding to existing compliant emergency services offered by first nations institutions.

In conclusion, again, thank you to the committee for inviting me to discuss fire safety and emergency management and for the opportunity to ensure that you, as our elected officials, have your questions answered from the boots-on-the-ground emergency officials.

This concludes my opening statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have for me.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you, Mr. Kent.

Chief Beatty, please go ahead.

11:10 a.m.

Chief Peter Beatty Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Thank you, Madam Chair and honourable committee members, for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding the impacts of the wildfires on our northern communities.

The Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, PBCN, is a large multi-community band located in Saskatchewan and has a population of 10,655 members, seven distinct northern communities, and one community located just outside of Prince Albert. The seven northern PBCN communities are spread throughout a vast traditional territory of approximately 51,000 square kilometres.

During the first week of August, 2017, several fires were started due to lightning strikes in the vicinity of a number of PBCN communities. Although the fires began as small and manageable, as they grew daily they came to significantly impact three of the PBCN communities. Poor air quality and direct fire threat led to the evacuation of approximately 2,800 PBCN band members. These evacuated members were displaced for approximately 34 days.

During Wildfire Management's actioning of the fires and the efforts to evacuate, shelter, and repatriate community members, there were several significant issues that surfaced that I would like to bring to your attention at this time. These issues fall under the areas of communication, actioning of fires, and funding.

In the area of communication, clarity is needed in the definition and terminology used by Wildfire Management when describing operations. Differing definitions used throughout the event were confusing and at times misleading. Provincial teleconferences regarding strategy and event management were closed to the PBCN leadership and the emergency operations centre, resulting in a question of transparency of operational communications.

In the area of actioning of fires, the timeliness of actioning fires with manpower and equipment is a major concern. The impacts to the communities would have been minimized if the original small fires had been controlled earlier. Instead, major roads, critical infrastructure, and public safety were compromised significantly. Over 185,000 hectares of traditional lands were impacted, and a community of over 3,500 people was threatened. This led to the general evacuation of Pelican Narrows.

In the area of funding, wildfires have significant financial and human resource costs to the bands and their agencies. Expectations that these costs will be absorbed by the band are unrealistic, based on the current funding practices and models. Both health services and the band are mandated to have emergency response plans in place. However, no funding is allocated to this. During this event, it was clear that having an emergency response coordinator, ERC, in place to provide leadership and coordination through a band-led emergency operations centre had major benefits for all stakeholders.

There are unfunded costs associated with community security, local fire suppression, and maintaining sustenance and supply chain to essential services remaining in the community. It is essential to have health workers and other community agency staff working with community members at evacuation sites to provide support and continuity of care. This is another unfunded cost.

These are only some of the costs associated with community emergencies that are expected to be borne by the band and are not clearly defined in reimbursement models.

I am respectfully requesting the federal government to review the attached information package and to consider the following requests related to forest fire management and response.

Operational terms need to be clearly defined along with current fire actioning policies and made available to first nations stakeholders.

During an emergency event affecting a first nation, it should be deemed standard procedure to have first nations representation at all provincial/federal meetings where decisions will be made regarding event management, strategy, or provision of services affecting the first nation.

Standard operating procedures or guidelines utilized by Wildfire Management to define the actioning threshold for a fire need to be reviewed. In our opinion, the fires could have been managed better to minimize the effects on the communities and the large traditional land area. We are requesting a review of the fire suppression efforts of Wildfire Management by an impartial third party. This should result in improved outcomes in future fires.

Congregate shelters have had ongoing concerns regarding such things as the safety of at-risk populations, maximum length of state, utilization of traditional foods, and activities to name a few. Where congregate shelters are absolutely necessary, a first nations committee should be engaged to advise on standardized shelter management policies and procedures.

The La Ronge 2015 wildfires resulted in INAC giving a verbal indication of funding for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, LLRIB, health emergency response coordinator position. This should be extended to include the PBCN health ERC position as well.

Standard covered services should be clearly defined by INAC/FNIHB.

INAC and the province should work with first nations to identify locations within first nations communities that could serve as alternate shelter locations, and support them the same as any other shelter facility.

Permanent clean air shelters should be supported to reduce health risks during times of delayed evacuation, when sheltering in place and/or as respite during poor air quality due to high smoke levels.

First nations should be supported through funding and manpower in the areas earlier identified as funding deficiencies. As stated, the recent wildfires of 2017 have had significant impacts on the PBCN northern communities. Two reports that document the Lac La Ronge 2015 and the PBCN 2017 wildfires will be completed by March 31, 2018. These would greatly assist in future planning and policy review.

In closing, I would like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to address the standing committee, and I look forward to any questions you may have.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you, Chief. We appreciate you taking the time and your extensive travel to get here. Meegwetch.

We're going to open up to questioning.

Mr. Anandasangaree.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Thank you both for joining us this morning.

I would like to begin with Peter Beatty. I understand there were 2,300 residents who were evacuated this past summer. Could you elaborate on the type of resources that were required for that evacuation, and also, what resources, to your satisfaction, were at your disposal to manage the evacuation?

11:20 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

Initially when we declared the emergency evacuation, we made contact with the province, social services, and emergency services to let them know that we needed to get people out of the community. They sent in school buses for the priority one patients. These were the elderly and small children and so on.

Of course, I raised some concerns, which were later addressed when they sent in coach buses, which were a little more comfortable. We had some real concerns with them sending school buses to the community to haul out our priority one patients. That's not a very comfortable ride when it's approximately four hours to Prince Albert or five hours to Saskatoon.

Those were the resources that we had, in conjunction with some private vehicles that left the community at that time. When we went to the priorities two and three, we had the coaches there to transport those people. Then for the general evacuation, a lot of people took their own vehicles to leave the community. We didn't have a lot of resources provided. Of course, for the people who wanted to go out on their own, we had to assist them with the gas they needed. I think the lunches were provided when they got to Prince Albert or Saskatoon.

The majority of the evacuees were taken to a congregate shelter in the soccer stadium in Saskatoon. Some were in Prince Albert, and I forget the name of the facility they used there. I don't think it was a congregate. It was mostly hotel rooms that we initially provided for them. Then we contacted the Red Cross, and they took over from there in terms of getting people into hotels in Prince Albert and Saskatoon.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Could you elaborate with respect to the geographical challenges you faced? I know you're dealing with a vast area, and also a number of different communities.

11:20 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Maybe Mr. Kent, you can give us a sense of some of the geographical challenges that exist in the area you work in.

11:20 a.m.

Commissioner, Emergency and Protective Services, Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management

Richard Kent

In northern Saskatchewan, we have many remote communities. We're in the forests. We're Saskatchewan with a 100,000 lakes and forests, so we don't have a whole lot of roads. There's normally one road in and one road out. This is difficult for us, because the roads in and out of the communities were shut down quite often because the fire was approaching the roads. We didn't have a large window of opportunity to get people in and out when we needed to. To get that many people out by air just wasn't going to happen.

These are conditions that we meet all the time in our forested areas. There are not a lot of roads. They're all gravel roads. There are very few paved roads, and they get shut down by fire. The provincial government will shut roads down due to the fires approaching and the danger of having people travel through those areas.

Those are just some of the conditions that we need to look at. As the chief mentioned, bringing school buses in on a hot day with no washroom facilities on them for priority one people is kind of ridiculous. I think we need to ensure that the communities have the proper training so that they can start looking after some of these issues on their own before they have to get outside help.

Those are some of the issues we have.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Just to pick up on your last point, what are some of the lessons learned from this summer and how can we use those lessons for future preparation?

11:25 a.m.

Commissioner, Emergency and Protective Services, Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management

Richard Kent

We've had many lessons learned because we've had emergencies in Saskatchewan, due to forest fires, flooding, and everything else over the years. One of the lessons learned is that values at risk that may be identified by the province are not the values at risk identified by the first nations communities.

An example of that would be that a value at risk with the province is a structure, building, cabin, or something like that. When we talk to our chiefs, elders, and people in the communities, the values at risk for them are the forests next to the communities. Some may go out to Safeway to do their shopping, but our communities go to the forests to do their shopping. That's where they gather their food, berries, and medicines. However, that's not looked at as a value at risk in a lot of cases.

The other lessons that we've learned are that there are cultural differences and we have to ensure the communities look after their own people. The communities need to tell the emergency staff, whether it's my staff, provincial staff, or federal staff, that there are some things we need to do that are culturally different. We need to ensure that they have a say in that.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Just for clarification for committee members, can you tell us a little about what a level one patient is? Is this a person with medical needs on a daily basis? Are they at the health centre or are they independent? Give us an idea of what you mean by level one.

11:25 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

Priority one patients are chronic care patients. They could be diabetics who need dialysis services two or three times a week. These are people who need that service. They have to be taken out of the community. Some of the other ones are chronic heart patients or people with very serious health conditions.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We're going to move to the Conservative side to MP Kevin Waugh.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Thank you.

It was me who put your names forward. We've had a lot of fires in our province in the last number of years and I know we're studying B.C. a lot because they had horrific incidents this year. We had some in Manitoba. Thank you both for making your way to Ottawa this morning.

Who ordered the school buses? That's the first question.

11:25 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

The province. I'm not sure which agency that would have been, whether it was the Red Cross or the emergency management organization. I don't know exactly who made that call, but they sent in school buses.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

When did they change the school buses to coaches and who ordered that?

11:25 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

We had conference calls with the province, social services, wildfire management, and other agencies within the province that we work with in emergencies. This isn't the first one we've been through. One of those agencies would have ordered those buses.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

You said you were excluded from teleconference calls.

11:30 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

The way it was structured was that they would have their meetings, whether it was a teleconference among themselves or in a face-to-face meeting. After that, they would join in to our conference call with them. They did their management strategies with the fire and so on within their closed group—I'll use that word—and then they would come on to our conference call after.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

You talked about insufficient funding for health equipment and support. What is the funding you get for this and how much more would you think is required when you're dealing with this?

11:30 a.m.

Chief, Peter Ballantyne First Nation, Assembly of First Nations

Chief Peter Beatty

In the case of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation health services, the emergency response coordinator was a funded position through the Prince Albert Grand Council. I believe it came from the first nations and Inuit health branch, FNIHB. That funding is coming to a close. I believe that they funded that position at $75,000 a year.

As I stated in my opening statement, we know that La Ronge had been given verbal confirmation that they would be funded through INAC.

We're asking for the same funding as well. If we were funded it would be at that minimum of $75,000 per year.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Thank you for your presentation and your recommendations, and also you, Mr. Kent.

These fires started in August and your staff had gone home by the middle of August. How does that happen?