Evidence of meeting #83 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 evacuated.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Keith Maracle  President, First Nations National Building Officers Association
John Kiedrowski  Project Manager and Consultant, First Nations National Building Officers Association
Viola Thomas  Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc
David McDougall  Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation
Al Richmond  Chair, Cariboo Regional District
Judy Klassen  Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Kewatinook, As an Individual

11:50 a.m.

Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

Viola Thomas

—should be decentralized and not be centralized out of Ottawa. There should be regional offices in each province and territory where they can provide community resources for training so that it's comprehensive in all facets of emergency preparedness.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Please, I'd remind MPs to ask your question and leave enough time for our guests to answer.

MP Cannings.

November 9th, 2017 / 11:50 a.m.

NDP

Richard Cannings NDP South Okanagan—West Kootenay, BC

Thank you, and thank you, all, for being here before us today.

I'd like to start with Ms. Thomas.

Kukwstsétsemc for being here. Lim'limpt, as we say in the Okanagan. It was nice to hear your talk, especially how you described your land. I grew up in the desert grasslands in the Okanagan and still live there. In my previous life, I worked a lot with the local Indian bands there, the Penticton, Osoyoos, and Lower Similkameen. You mentioned some of the traditional practices that helped deal with wildfires. I know that in the Penticton Band they have firekeepers who are still doing that to some extent, but I imagine those prescribed burns, as we now call them, are difficult to get through any permitting process.

I just wonder what issues you face there and what your band does about them. Is there an interest in your band to do that practice more often? After the 2003 fires in B.C., we had a program that was going to help pay for all of that on both reserves and municipalities to fireproof those, but it seems to have been forgotten about.

I just wondered if you could comment on that.

11:55 a.m.

Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

Viola Thomas

Currently Tk'emlups has an agreement with the Kamloops Fire Rescue. During the wildfires this summer we ended up having a lot of homeless people come from across the river from the city. That's created a real safety issue for our community because many of those individuals have life challenges with addictions. Quite often they're leaving their dirty needles along our beach and whatnot. Every spring, we still do our prescribed burning. We do it in collaboration with community members.

But we also need to look at it in terms of the human factor, in terms of how these emergencies play out with people who are marginalized or vulnerable, particularly homeless people. I really feel there's that lack of coordination inter-ministerially to address that facet of emergency preparedness.

11:55 a.m.

NDP

Richard Cannings NDP South Okanagan—West Kootenay, BC

Do you carry out the spring burning on outside areas, away from the river, up from the edges of the forest, that interface area that might be most impacted by wildfires?

11:55 a.m.

Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

Viola Thomas

We target different areas each year depending on the underbrush growth.

11:55 a.m.

NDP

Richard Cannings NDP South Okanagan—West Kootenay, BC

I'd like to turn to Mr. McDougall.

We've heard about a lot of the limited infrastructure that a lot of first nation communities have. I've heard of communities without fire trucks or even access to water. I assume water is fairly close at hand where you are.

Perhaps you could just list the top two or three priorities that you would need met by the federal government for that firefighting infrastructure.

11:55 a.m.

Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation

Chief David McDougall

The problem that occurred was due to the fact that right now most fires near aboriginal communities are left to burn out, according to the laws of nature, and no action is taken to monitor or avert the possible outbreak in these sections. Why can't the evacuation be averted by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, by putting out the small fires near the community? They wait until they escalate.

The water bombers were deployed to another area. They're not deployed until it's a real emergency in our area. These are some of the things that people don't realize happen in the remote areas of the country. Why do they wait and spend millions of dollars on evacuations when they can avert these situations with early intervention? In the past we would ask our local able-bodied men to be trained by traditional forest fire fighters. We'd go out there with these elderly gentlemen who knew how to tackle the fires, and we would put out the small fires before they escalated to major fires. But now we are told by the Nature Conservancy not to engage the fires. So another strategy needs to be embarked on.

Yes, we have lots of water around. However, there are no assets to pump the water to douse the fires. This happens. Also, in the past, as I mentioned, our community was threatened by fire three times. We took the initiative to deploy our heavy equipment to create a firebreak, and we saved a $30,000 school complex. If it were up to the strategy the government was utilizing, we probably would have lost the school and would have been back again on the list trying to get a new school.

In other cases where we did our own emergency measures, we evacuated a minimal number of people. But as in this case, we are asked by the government if it's time to mobilize people in danger, and we say, yes, we declare it. That's what they give to the first nation council. Now, when the people get to the city, they are at the whim of whether an important convention is happening. We go to the hotels. We had to move elders around to accommodate venues that had been booked beforehand, because the province did not declare a state of emergency. Two hoteliers who look after the Radisson here in the city said that back in 1997 when the flood took place south of Winnipeg, they were able to cancel venues to accommodate these people so they were not disrupted. They were traumatized as it was, and they wanted to leave them in that place.

That was never done for us. We were moving elderly people, small families, all over the city, wherever there was space. They could not stay in these places, especially in the soccer compound, because that facility is kept very cold because of the athletic activities. So they're asked to sleep in there on cots. If you've ever tried to sleep on a canvas cot or an air mattress out in the cold, there's no insulation below. A couple of our elders caught pneumonia from that.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

Sorry, but we've run out of time.

Noon

NDP

Richard Cannings NDP South Okanagan—West Kootenay, BC

That's fine.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

For clarification, was the education complex worth $30,000 or $30 million?

Noon

Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation

Chief David McDougall

It was a $30-million project.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

Questioning now goes to MP Anandasangaree.

We'll take a couple of minutes. Because we started late and we have guests who flew in, perhaps we could—

Noon

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

How long are you proposing?

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Could we take five minutes?

I see that we have agreement for five minutes.

Noon

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thank you, panel, for being here.

Mr. McDougall, I know quite a few young people were affected. Can you tell us what supports they had during the evacuation?

Noon

Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation

Noon

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Young people, children and youth.

Noon

Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation

Chief David McDougall

By during the evacuation, do you mean in the city?

Noon

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Yes.

Noon

Chief, St. Theresa Point First Nation

Chief David McDougall

There were some very innovative attempts, I would say, to keep them occupied and out of trouble, but people start testing the boundaries and whatnot. We had some scary moments when certain young people went missing for a few hours.

At the same time, I'd like to commend the efforts of our MLA, Judy Klassen, for getting people and groups to come to entertain the kids. The soccer compound was very conducive to efforts to maintain the kids' interest. It was a great compound for that purpose, including the open area, the field. The kids were having a great time, including having a wiener roast and also activities inside. The facility itself is conducive to that.

Downtown at the convention centre, out the door, I saw drug dealers hanging around and trying to get their attention. I had to intervene a couple of times myself and with the city police. I was in close dialogue with them, and they helped out quite a bit.

They had virtually nothing to do at the downtown location, the convention centre. There were no shower facilities, and these people were there for eight days. But in the soccer complex on the north side of the city, they had shower facilities and whatnot.

That's why we wanted to take them out of that setting as soon as possible. It was getting really tense.

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Thank you, Chief.

Councilor Thomas, can you give us a sense of what lessons were learned and what we can take forward in our report?

12:05 p.m.

Councillor, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc

Viola Thomas

The challenges around communicating with so many different bodies was a huge challenge to overcome. For example, when we had to have the lockdown when the gunman came through our community, it created total chaos, because once the RCMP requested that our community be locked down—the schools, everybody working at the band office, and the folks who were in the community cleaning up our community graveyard—there was no communication coming back as to when that lockdown was going to be lifted. It just created more chaos and more trauma for the families, especially the young people.

Whenever there is an emergency response, we need to ensure that there is adequate trauma counselling provided after those emergencies occur. That incident had a huge impact on the children at the school. Many parents were scared to send their kids to school the next day. That's one lesson. We really need to encourage government to provide that type of support after emergency situations.

Another lesson is about advanced planning, with all the different agencies, around emergency preparedness so that we're all on the same page in terms of how to respond to an emergency, based on the type of emergency.

With the wildfire situation, we certainly didn't plan for that to happen. We certainly didn't plan to open up our community to allow evacuees to come in. It put a great strain on our existing services. A lesson from that would be to recruit more volunteers in advance.

Connecting with the right officials was also a big challenge, because we were getting different information from different sources. They weren't all on the same page. The key is to ensure that we are connecting with the appropriate officials.

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We've run out of time.

It's a complicated issue with many different factors.

I want to thank each and every one of you for coming here to Ottawa on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. Thank you very much for coming out.

Chief, thank you for coming down to Winnipeg. I know that others will be presenting their perspectives as well.

We look for recommendations as to how we can do better, so if you choose to submit a brief, that would be appreciated.

Meegwetch to everybody. Safe travels. Thank you.

We'll suspend for a short time and reconvene in about five minutes.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Let's reconvene the meeting. I see that our panellists are with us now.

On the telephone we have Mr. Al Richmond, chair of the Cariboo Regional District.

Al, you'll explain how you feed into fires and emergency measures.

Then we've got MLA Judy Klassen, who represents the area that was evacuated, and she is by video conference.

We're very pleased to have you.

In Ottawa, we're on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. We recognize that because we're in the process of truth and reconciliation.

You will have 10 minutes to present, and then we will open it up to questions from the MPs who are here in Ottawa.

First on our agenda I've got Al Richmond.

Al, are you ready to start? Do you want to go first?