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

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

That's not your fault. It's the government's fault I'm talking about.

11:45 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

She came right out to the community and asked. She didn't know; she asked. When we sat her down, she was polite about it and respectful. We went through all of our plans. She said, “From a financial...I'm here to do whatever to help you.”

That was the kind of leadership we wanted to see from every government agency that was out there, but it wasn't there. They just assumed we didn't know what we were doing.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

That's wrong, because we give you the money up front to look after this. I think what we have found out here in the last month to a month and a half is that we have no data. When we were talking about data, we didn't know how many were trained. We don't know the equipment that you have. We don't know any of this stuff until there's a fire and an evacuation. Then we're scrambling like this, saying, “What have you done? If you don't mind my saying, what have you done with the money that we gave you four or five years ago?”

Then they start pointing fingers when it should be the other way. We should be proactive like you have been, and sharing this, and saying that's the only way we're going to get this. You're sitting right now at $2.260 million down. You're not going to collect all the money. I think you know that. You stated that. That's wrong, because you've been proactive, but you're one of very few in this country, if you don't mind my saying—and we've heard that here for the last six weeks—and you're being punished for it.

11:50 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

It's okay. We'll fight. If we have to go to the small claims court, then we will do that. I don't mind a good fight. That's what keeps me going.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

You did say there was a mismanagement of our forests.

11:50 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

How so?

11:50 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

You look at, for example, deciduous trees. Those are the white trees that have nice little leaves. They turn nice, pretty colours in the fall. They fall off in the winter.

In the prime of fire season, you have a whole bunch of white trees with those leaves, and there's a roaring fire coming. When the fire hits that tree, it just dies. I don't know what it is. I'm not a scientist, but I know that to be true. I don't know if it's the gas that comes out of those leaves when the fire hits it or whatever, but fires just die, or they slow down immensely, enough to the point where you could tackle that fire.

Forest practices don't consider that tree to be of any money value, so they pour herbicides, pesticides, and everything they can on those trees to kill them so they're not competing for water, so the commercial trees that they're after have all the time and opportunity to grow. There are no natural defences out in the natural forestry world in the Tsilhqot'in anymore because of these practices. We're not going to allow the herbicides and pesticides. We want those white trees sprinkled all throughout. That's just a small example.

The beetle epidemic is another big issue.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Give me two lines that you want to see in our report when we're done. What would you want me to say on your behalf in that report? What do you want to see in the report when it comes out?

11:50 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

It's probably the same thing. We're not here to run anybody out, but if you don't want to acknowledge me and my community, then I'm going to push back hard the other way. There has to be mutual respect. We have to fight those crises together.

The other residents in the Chilcotin, we cooked for everyone. Our cooks were cooking 20 hours a day. People were scrambling trying to get out and they had nowhere to go. They stopped in my community. Our whole parking lot was filled up with campers, tourists, ranchers, and local residents. A lot of them barely had enough clothes with them. They had no food and no water. We cooked for them. We supplied them with food. We supplied them with water. We supplied them with fuel, and on their way they went. A lot of the local ranchers around there came to our community for support, and we sent firefighters to them. The one day when the fire actually took a really hard run at us, a lot of those ranchers came back to our community and helped us stand our ground and fight the fire. We were doing that not as non-native and native people. We did it as Tsilhqot'in residents. I think that's what you're striving for.

To further answer a previous question, I look at Cariboo Regional District, and I look at the head of CRD, Al Richmond. He should have known. He was there in 2010. He was there in 2009. He knows my community, yet he's the first one to waltz out. It's almost as though suddenly he has authority and says, “I'm the authority and I'm going to....” As far as I'm concerned, that bastard should be canned from his job. I've said that routinely in Williams Lake and I'll say it again. Get him right out of there. Get people who know what they're doing, people who are respectful.

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

Thank you.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

To close the questioning, we'll go to MP T.J. Harvey.

November 23rd, 2017 / 11:55 a.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I really want to thank you, Chief Alphonse, for your testimony here today. Certainly it has been very passionate testimony that is very pertinent to the discussion. To start, I really want to thank you for everything that you do for your community.

I want to switch gears a little and talk about the traditional knowledge and your community's ability to handle these fires, given hundreds and hundreds of years of experience. This isn't a new cycle; it's an old cycle. It's as old as your community and your people. With that traditional knowledge and your emergency evacuation plan, and the bricks-and-mortar, concrete, actionable, deliverable abilities of your community, how can the federal and provincial governments, going forward, do a better job of taking that into consideration and being there as a partner, as opposed to being somebody who's coming in and dictating what we believe or the provincial government believes to be an appropriate response? How can we do a better job of starting the conversation off on the right foot by asking what we can do to help you instead of coming in and saying, “This is what we think you need to do”?

You referenced the idea of calling a summit or a round table discussion in a neighbouring community to get a bunch of people together. Is that a starting point? What do you feel is the best way forward?

11:55 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

I think we need to have a full review. In 2003, Gary Filmon, the former Manitoba premier, did that in B.C. We need another one similar to that to review what went on this summer.

I'm very thankful for your question. I've been waiting for that question.

Every step of the way we had to fight and argue and really assert ourselves. The AFN assembly in Regina.... In August, I left for the community. The day after I got to Regina I found out that B.C. Wildfire Service laid off not 10%, 25%, or 50%, but my whole crew, 100% of our crew, and replaced them with Mexican and Australian firefighters. Not only that, but they had no problem appointing someone from Australia to be the very head person to plan how to fight that fire.

There are times when I don't want to talk to my firefighters because sometimes the stories they tell me almost send me over the deep end. The guy there is supposed to be in charge of the fires, and he's sitting there and says, “Holy shit. I don't know what to do. Where I'm from we only have brush and grass fires. Those fires are 30 feet tall. I've never seen that in my life.” Yet, here he's instructing, and they have laid off my whole crew.

I got back to my councillors and my emergency operations centre, and I told them to call a meeting right away. I said, “I want you to tell them that if they don't hire our crews back, we're going to personally escort every last firefighter out of the Tsilhqot'in. It doesn't matter if everything burns because just as many white ranches as Indian reserves are going to burn down.”

Why do we have to resort to those types of...before our firefighters are recognized?

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

On that note, do you think this point of contact I'm talking about, or the way this relationship evolves going forward, recognizing that the way things have been dealt with in the past isn't the appropriate way.... If we set that as a benchmark and we say that we're going to do things differently, do you believe that an aboriginal fire marshal service model or a fire marshal model in general is the appropriate point of contact between communities such as yours and federal and provincial government departments? How would you like to see that?

11:55 a.m.

Tribal Chairman, Tsilhqot'in National Government

Chief Joe Alphonse

We should get everybody in the same room and come up with a new system to figure out the standard firefighting process we're going to follow. One of our crews asked me what the Mexicans were doing out there. They spent the whole summer sleeping in the bush. They had a siesta on our fire all summer long. These guys don't know where the trails are. They don't know where the old wagon roads are. Our people know every last valley. If they need to get out in a hurry, they will. Some of our crews got shipped out to other parts of B.C., and they asked, “Why are we fighting fires here? We don't know the terrain here. We know our territory.”

B.C. Wildfire Service appoints somebody, and that person is there for 10 days. Then that person has to take a mandatory four days off. However, at the end of the four days, that person gets shipped off to another part of British Columbia, so there's always somebody new. When somebody new comes in, there is always the question, “Who are the players? What's the terrain? What are we looking at?” The whole fire is fought with people trying to figure out what's going on. You need consistency from day one.

Everybody is over there analyzing wind direction and everything else. By the time they finish all of their surveillance and everything else, it's two o'clock in the afternoon, and then they're prepared to head in. You should be on that fire at five o'clock in the morning when it's nice and cool and the fires are down. You don't go into a fire when it's at its peak in the middle of the day. Huge changes have to happen in the way we fight fire.

They're all afraid of being sued. Just let our guys go. We know how to fight fires. You bring in one bulldozer; one bulldozer is like 100 firefighters.

Noon

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Just in regard—

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

You're over by two minutes.

Noon

Liberal

TJ Harvey Liberal Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Okay, I'm good.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I did want to hear you because your words are very wise, very poignant, and right to the point. I really appreciate your candour. Thank you so much for taking such a long trip to come up here to Ottawa. As you can tell, all of us are very appreciative. It's been our pleasure to meet you, Chief. Meegwetch.

We'll take a break, and then we'll have a new panel join us. We'll suspend for a couple of minutes.

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

I ask everybody to quiet down, please. We have another panel. You're welcome to stay.

Grand Chief Edward John, welcome to our committee. We are on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people, and we are studying fires, fire management, fire evacuations, and emergency measures in communities.

You have up to 10 minutes to give your presentation, then we'll go to rounds of questioning. I'll open it up to you. Welcome.

12:05 p.m.

Grand Chief Edward John Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here, and also to be following the evidence presented by Chief Joe and his colleagues.

My name is Edward John. I am an elected member of the First Nations Summit executive, elected over 11 terms.

This summer was like no other. In British Columbia, as you know, there was a state of emergency. I did have the pleasure to be invited to Chief Joe's community, the Tl'etinqox, a Tsilhqot'in community at the Anaham reserve, as it is known in English.

The Tsilhqot'in people live to the south of where I come from. I come from the geographic centre of the province, and the language that the chief and his people speak is the same language that my people speak, so we share a common heritage. I know the communities well. They are in the middle of the interior. We are in the northern part of the interior, and there is a southern interior.

Most of the fires took place, of course, in the south, in the Williams Lakes-Quesnel area. There were fires to the north.

I happened to be in this community for one day at the height of these fires, really to see for myself. I was invited by the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development in British Columbia. I requested that the head of Indian Affairs in the region, the regional director general, Catherine Lappe, attend as well, because there was no federal presence on these matters involving the first nation communities, so it was important that she be invited. We were brought in by helicopter to Williams Lake, and out to the communities. It was absolutely amazing to see the countryside on fire.

My office has provided to the clerk four documents: the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada-Emergency Management B.C. memorandum of understanding that was signed last spring; the Canada-B.C. wildfire response agreement, which was tabled with you; a proposal that we submitted to the Prime Minister calling for immediate resources to be put into our communities; and a resolution from our chiefs supporting the proposal.

I listened briefly to the testimony of Chief Joe. It was about traditional knowledge. The people who come from these areas and who know their lands and territories were completely disregarded in the face of so-called expertise. I am not downplaying the expertise by any stretch of the imagination, but here are people who know the lands and territories and understand all the nuances and contours of their lands, yet they are being disregarded in this situation. I think it's really important to understand the question that was raised on traditional knowledge, and I want to thank you for doing so.

The memorandum of understanding with Emergency Management B.C. is very well intentioned. We participated in the development of that, but we did not sign that MOU because it did not go as far as we expected it to. It was an MOU between B.C. and Indian Affairs—once again, the federal government transferring resources to the provinces without our full participation on how the resources are to be used. It's the same with the wildfire response agreement. Something in the neighbourhood of $2 million was transferred to the province on this.

What has happened is that, on the operational side, it has fallen apart, and we saw that in spades. The relationship between Emergency Management B.C., for example, or Wildfire B.C.... When we travelled to Williams Lake, we had a briefing for maybe an hour or an hour and a half with EMBC and Wildfire B.C. officials, and other officials responsible for this matter.

I asked what steps they take when they advise and provide recommendations to the regional district chair or the mayor from Williams Lake, and they went through the steps as to how they provide the recommendation for an evacuation alert and an evacuation order. Then I asked when they talked to the chiefs, what steps they took? The answer was a blank stare, because they didn't know. They figured it was sufficient for the regional district to make evacuation alert orders, as well as evacuation orders, that would apply to the on-reserve first nations communities. Of course, neither the regional district nor the mayor have any authority on reserve, so there's a vacuum there.

One of the big issues we have is that a state of emergency was declared, but that does not suspend civil or political rights. Individuals who are ordered to evacuate do not have to evacuate. People who were evacuated were told that their houses would be protected. Once they left, their houses were not protected and the non-aboriginal people's homes burned down. We have seen examples of that in the province.

One of the recommendations I would make for this committee, because you have access to the resources to do this, is to do a legal review of the situation and a legal analysis. We have our own legal analysis on this, but I think it's really important that one of the outcomes of this work that you do is to provide instructions to the research department of your Parliament here to help provide some of the background work.

This document, which I'm not sure you have, is a “Proposal for a BC First Nations Emergency Management Fund to Prepare For, Prevent, Respond to and Recover from Emergencies (2017)”, not just fires but other risks. Flooding is an annual occurrence in British Columbia. We're in an earthquake zone in the Lower Mainland and on the west coast of British Columbia.

Here's the point. The timber that's burning there in the picture is dead from the mountain pine beetle. About 90% of the timber in that territory is pine. At the beginning of the 1990s, we had a massive mountain pine beetle attack that destroyed millions of hectares of timber, and that is now the fuel for these fires. The fire seasons are not over. Expect them next year and the following year. This was a massive fire, but it could get worse.

We provided some recommendations to the government. Minister Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety, met with us. We have $33 billion over the next 10 years for green opportunities funding, and he suggested that some of these funds could be used for the purposes that we've outlined, at least that was our understanding.

We made some recommendations. There are seven of them.

First is to review and, as necessary, revise the status and adequacy of all 203 first nations' emergency preparedness, evacuation, and response plans and their full and effective operational implementation. This is where we went to Ralph Goodale.

Second is support for the development of comprehensive strategic and operational level engagement and implementation plans of all B.C. first nations with provincial, federal, regional districts and municipalities, for effective and coordinated response capacities.

Third is support all first nations' acquisition and ongoing maintenance of necessary assets including infrastructures, equipment, and supplies to respond fully and effectively to emergency situations such as floods and forest fires.

Fourth is support for capacity development—which is Joe's point about bringing in firefighters from Australia and Mexico—including training and accreditation of first nations peoples who are responsible to manage and respond to emergency situations. Where trained, these response teams should be brought into situations where their skill and expertise are required.

Fifth is support for those evacuated or relocated and for recovery, restoration, and/or rebuilding of lands, homes, and infrastructure in first nations communities, as well as support for those evacuees returning, bearing in mind their dignity, health, and well-being.

Six is support for this community, Tl'etinqox village, as a central gathering point for those on Highway 24 to Chilcotin Highway. As he said, his community, they remained and they became a place of refuge. It's an important place that should be supported.

Seven is that there will continue to be broader impacts, such as loss of traditional food security due to the inaccessibility of traditional food sources including fish, loss of hay and grazing land for livestock, and loss of cultural heritage, among many other items.

We've outlined five steps that we think were necessary, including a session between Canada, British Columbia, and us to review what happened.

I take this opportunity to make those comments to you.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you very much.

Your presentations have been received by the clerk and are sent off for translation. They'll be posted shortly, and you'll have access to all of the documents.

Questioning begins with MP Anandasangaree.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Thank you, Grand Chief.

It seems like we just met you, as you spoke very recently with us. Welcome back.

I have a couple of questions.

With respect to traditional knowledge, can you share with us how traditional knowledge will allow first nations firefighters and communities to be a better support during fires and evacuations?

12:15 p.m.

Political Executive Member, First Nations Summit

Grand Chief Edward John

The most essential of the knowledge is the knowledge of the land itself.

When you bring in Mexican firefighters or Australian firefighters, they have no clue where they're going, or what the country looks like or even the roads and trails in our territories, which we know about. That, in itself, is one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge and information to have when you're dealing with a situation like this. These fires are massive, and sometimes it's best to stay out of the way because they are very dangerous in a dangerous situation.

On the perimeters, on the outside, how, and what steps need to be taken, that knowledge would be within. As Chief Joe Alphonse mentioned, this is the information that they have that would be vital to dealing with fires as we have here.