Evidence of meeting #85 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 community.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Joe Alphonse  Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government
Chief Edward John  Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

12:40 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

It was really about decision-making authorities and responses. For example, in this case, if you need support from the Government of Canada from Indigenous and Northern Affairs, this community is required to get some sort of authorization from Emergency Management B.C. We're asking why they don't just listen to the chief and the community council who say that they need their support. Why is it that you have to get Emergency Management B.C. to certify that there's a need here, and therefore, you're able to come into the community and provide the resources to it?

I'm really grateful for the regional director of INAC in Vancouver, Catherine Lappe. When she came to the community and saw what was happening, she said that they were going to help, that they were not going to ask for permission from Emergency Management or someone else, because they could see what was going on, and they were going to step in. If we needed a Caterpillar D8 to be brought in, they were going to do it, or if we needed tankers or some other equipment to help us deal with the fire, they would do it. They were not going to wait. They said that they would reimburse the community, and that if there were houses that burned down, they would help us rebuild.

The practical side of the MOU is what we were concerned about. We had met with the province as well, the lead for Emergency Management B.C., on this matter and expressed our concern. What we said to that individual was that Emergency Management and their respective offices in the province ought to be going into our communities and know who those community leaders are, who the chiefs are, and who the councillors are. They should make sure that they're operationally prepared. That didn't happen, so again we're making that recommendation.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Further to that, I want to touch on one of the points, the recommendations, that you had offered, I think you said, about support for evacuation resettlement, ensuring that people come back into the community. I was particularly interested when you talked about taking into account their dignity, health, and well-being.

12:40 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Could you quickly elaborate on that point, first of all on the fact that, obviously, communities have dealt with this before? They have managed to pick up and move on after the incidents are over, so obviously the capacity is there to do that. Could you also elaborate on the importance of recognizing the capacity within the indigenous communities, given the proper resources, to not only look after the fire while it's ongoing, but also the recuperation process after?

The fact that you had to actually single out those three points, I think, is very reflective of how much work is left to be done.

12:40 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

You know, here you have a situation, a wildfire. It's adjacent to your communities and you fear for your own safety. When there's a response to that concern.... As Chief Joe explained earlier, they came in and said that if we didn't move those children, they were going to come in through the ministry of children and families, and they were going to apprehend those kids and move them. That's the worst thing you could say to anyone.

A chief from Williams Lake Indian Band, Chief Ann Louie, said that in her community they saw the fires on the hill, just adjacent to their community. They were being told to evacuate, so they drove down the highway to get out of the way of the fire. They were stopped on the highway by a police officer and were told to turn back. Where were they going to go, you know?

I think there were a lot of shortcomings. I don't think they were ill-intentioned by any stretch, but sometimes, you know, when people in authority are not properly trained, they're going to make judgment calls on the spur of the moment that may not be very good ones.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

It's always important that we learn from our mistakes and we pick up those pieces and move on.

One thing I want to touch on—because I know I'm going to run out of time—is the conversation around capacity and bricks and mortar, the idea that indigenous communities need to have the ability within their communities to fight these fires, not only forest fires but also municipal fires within their communities, structure fires.

12:45 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I would like to see a paragraph put in the report that says that.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

What I want to say is that if you look at different levels of government—traditional municipal, federal, and provincial governments—it's always said that municipal government is by far the most efficient level of government because the decision-makers are also the people who are hands-on on the ground. They recognize when a decision needs to be made at the appropriate time. I think that's something that we need to take into consideration, that the chief and councils are there. They're living it on the ground every day, and we need to recognize the capacity that's there and move forward from that spot.

12:45 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

Thank you for that. That's really, I think, an essential point, that municipal leaders, councillors, and mayors are treated with some respect, being as close as they are to the ground, as you put it. I think that is important. It's no disrespect to provincial members of the legislature or federal members of Parliament. It's just that there are different levels of government in this country.

Of course, in our case, we are there in our communities, as councillors, as chiefs. We are worried about the individuals and their safety and well-being. We're never going to put people in harm's way, and people think that we're going to make no decisions or foolish decisions that will impact our communities. We will never ever do that.

That's why the issue of dignity and well-being is important, because people are elders.... I mentioned two elders who were away from their own community, under evacuation orders, fully expecting that they would be back. Two of them died, one to the south of their community, and one, who was a good friend of mine, in Prince George. Their people are wondering what they are going to do now. They have to bring them home so that they can put them away in accordance with the tradition of the Secwepemc people, in this instance, from Esk'etemc.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

Questioning now goes to MP Cathy McLeod.

November 23rd, 2017 / 12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you, also.

Again, I keep watching these pictures and having a bit of déjà vu.

The piece that I'm struggling with a little is the whole memorandum partnership piece. I had the opportunity to visit in Manitoba when they were in the midst of some evacuations, where they didn't have that sort of relationship with the province. It was a Red Cross response.

I think I'm hearing you say that it's not perfect and we need to do some work in terms of what those agreements look like. I think a coordinated response with federal government, provincial government, first nations, and local government is the better option than some more isolated activity.

Is it just that the agreement needs a little massaging? As I say, I looked at what was happening in Manitoba, and I think things were a lot smoother when we had EMBC as part of the process.

12:50 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I know that your communities were impacted in a big way as well.

Let me put it this way. When I talked to the deputy minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation British Columbia during the height of this and following, I said that we needed support in these communities. They were able to do what they could, but the province's authority stops right here at the reserve boundary, and in a lot of places and with all kinds of services.

What he told me that really struck me was that the non-aboriginal communities are provided with the resources to prepare emergency plans to provide them with the wherewithal to to respond to fires and disasters, but there's no support for first nation communities. How stark can that be? That's why we put this $200-million proposal together.

We need resources in our communities. We come as an afterthought in all of this. We will review that MOU with B.C., and B.C. has committed to doing it. INAC has committed to reviewing it, and we will work to attempt to find a better way to ensure that our communities are not left out of the picture. When the deputy minister confirmed that one point with me, I didn't realize how extensive the Government of British Columbia, and maybe even the national government....

I saw in the news a few days ago, a huge national commitment to infrastructure and funding for that. These are infrastructure issues that we have to deal with. We should ensure that all of our first nation communities, not just in British Columbia but right across the country, such as Manitoba with the flooding, or the Prairies with the fires—633 first nation communities—are in a place to be able to fend for themselves.

Yes, a coordinated approach is absolutely essential, working with your neighbouring communities, whether it's Kamloops or Williams Lake. They are essential. There are regional districts and regional councils as well. It's in our interest to work together in the face of disasters like this, because that fire shows no distinction to anybody.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Would it be fair to say that the ideal world would have the MOUs with tripartite signatures?

12:50 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

It should be, yes, with the federal and provincial governments and first nations. We didn't have that in the case of the emergency management MOU.

I just found out yesterday that there was another agreement, the B.C. wildfire response agreement, with $2 million attached to it. I had never heard of it. That was the first time I heard of it, and I'm involved as deeply and widely across the province as anyone else on these issues. It came as a surprise to me that there was this agreement with a $2-million attachment to B.C. Wildfire, which generally has management for wildfire responses in the province.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you. We've run out of time.

We're moving our final questioning to MP Will Amos.

12:50 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Grand Chief John, thank you, and I concur with my colleague that this has been fabulous testimony. The whole MOU aspect is a bit of an eye-opener.

You said earlier that the 203 communities would be looking for training, and I can see where that comes from. It comes from a desire to see a true nation-to-nation relationship established.

I'm not a civil servant, so I'm not sitting in that seat, but it seems to me that individualized community-by-community training is going to be very expensive. I wonder what you think is the most reasonable approach to achieving individualized, nation-to-nation-respecting training in the context of limited resources. Are there opportunities for centralized or subregional training? What would you recommend in that regard?

12:55 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

Thank you. That's a very good question, Mr. Amos.

It's not just wildfire. Take my wife's community, for example, which is Musqueam. The City of Vancouver has developed around the territory of the peoples there. They have an agreement with the City of Vancouver for dealing with fires and other emergencies that may impact them, but say there's an earthquake—which is something that people say is imminent—and you have a tsunami, how are they going to respond? What preparedness plans do they have to deal with the peoples in that particular community? Is it the City of Vancouver's emergency plan that's going to kick in? Has anyone talked to the Musqueam people about what that plan looks like?

In a situation of wildfires, I don't think Musqueam's going to need any training with respect to wildfire management or response, but in my community in the central interior, the north, west and north of Prince George, the nearest town is 50 or 60 kilometres away. We have to do our own work. We can't expect, when there's a fire.... When you drive from my community or from the town to my community, just a small ways out of town is a sign saying, “This is the end of the fire protection zone.” That's it. Everybody over there, you're on your own, right?

We need to have the wherewithal to be able to respond with training, and I have to say that in my community we have a number of people who've stepped up, volunteered, and been trained. They've done a marvellous job. It's just that the supplies and equipment to respond—even to community emergency situations—need to be improved. It's old, decrepit equipment that could be upgraded. That's why I'm talking about the necessary infrastructure.

The call for $200 million over a period of four or five years is $50 million a year. That's for 203 first nations, so if you break it down, it might be $200,000 that could be used to help the communities be prepared, organized, and mindful.

As Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety said, the first priority of every community is public safety. I completely agree with him. If you don't have public safety, there are many other things that will fall by the wayside.

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Very quickly, then, I would think there are opportunities for non-indigenous emergency preparedness and firefighting crews to learn from traditional knowledge. How do you think that kind of learning opportunity could be presented to non-indigenous communities in the context of a 203-community process of training?

12:55 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

I'll give you an answer by way of a story from Chief Ron Ignace from Skeetchestn, just outside of Kamloops. He said he was surprised to find Australian firefighters coming into his territory to respond to a crisis situation. He said they were in the midst of preparing their own firefighters and were doing their ceremonies and prayers about their lands and the protection of their people. Our people were in prayer and smudging, he said, and to his surprise all those Australian firemen lined up and they were smudging too, just to show respect to the land.

I think we have to work together. We do. I think it's essential in the face of.... As I said, that fire doesn't know any colour. It doesn't know any boundaries. It's going to go where it's going to go. We can take measures to create safeguards, fireguards around the communities. We can take down the timber around the communities that could be fuel for the fire. Chief Joe, I flew into his community. They had created a wide fireguard around the entire perimeter of their village. Over to the front of their village was the Chilcotin River, which is a huge fireguard, but even that wasn't preventing the fire from jumping into the village area.

I want to thank this committee for undertaking this study, because I think it's really crucial that our national government take all necessary steps to ensure that the public safety that is so important to our community is respected and regarded, and that our communities are supported to ensure that we're able to take care of ourselves. I really call on the federal government, perhaps through this committee, to support this call for funding to come to our communities, because we do need it.

I did receive a letter from Minister Goodale. I wasn't discouraged by it, but I wasn't completely encouraged by it either, so maybe you can help.

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

We'll try. We're going to produce a report that will go to all MPs and the government and we'll be expecting a response. Our hope is that this will move things forward.

Thank you very much for taking the time. I know it's quite a trip to come here from B.C., especially if you're in the northwest.

Meegwetch. Thank you for coming to speak to us.

1 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

It's not only that. It's cold over here.

1 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

The meeting is adjourned.