Evidence of meeting #86 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 fire.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Jodene Blain  Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Welcome, everybody. We are convening our 86th meeting.

We're talking about fire, emergency measures, fire protection, and fire safety in communities. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are conducting a study on fire safety and emergency management in indigenous communities.

Today we have one presenter from the Ashcroft Indian Band.

We're very glad you're here. Our apologies that we had a vote in our normal time, and that we weren't able to make it. I'm glad you waited. We will extend our time. I understand that we have agreement to have three questioners, each for seven minutes.

First of all, you're going to do your presentation for up to 10 minutes, and then we'll have questions.

I also want to recognize that we're on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. It's important for us to recognize that we're in a process of truth and reconciliation, and we make that acknowledgement wherever we go.

Thank you for coming, and it's over to you.

11:40 a.m.

Jodene Blain Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Hello. I'm Jodene Blain, as you can see. I'm the band administrator for the Ashcroft Indian Band. I've also been the spokesperson throughout this whole fire. We are a small band in the interior of British Columbia. We have only 276 members.

I thought it was important for me to come because we offer a different perspective. We were the first and hardest hit first nation in B.C. The fire started on our plateau, so we had no chance. I know you've talked to other first nations. They had a chance to be proactive and did some amazing work. We had 30 minutes, from the time the fire started until it went through our community, to get people out. Half of our community was wiped out. We lost houses. We lost all our maintenance shops. Our maintenance manager had a shovel; that's all he had. Everything else was wiped out: our historical documents, our maps, our graveyard. All our hydro was just hanging. Septic tanks were just holes in the ground. I think it is important to give our perspective.

After the fire, the power was out in our community and in surrounding communities. Our cellphone tower burnt. I was a point of contact. I was on vacation at the time. I made a home base at the picnic table. I was the only person they could contact because the chief and council were out of cell service.

After that it was chaos. We were thrown into a pit of acronyms: EOC, ESS, EMBC. I'd never heard of any of those before. After failed attempts to open our EOC with no power, we finally got it up and running and we started the response process. I want to just highlight our experiences for this committee because it was chaos. Our members were scattered throughout all of B.C.

The first thing I want to point out is with regard to the Red Cross. I know the Red Cross has been here. We had no Red Cross presence in our community for weeks. We had to beg and plead and scream to get the Red Cross there. Our members needed to see the Red Cross as a sign that somebody cared. Because there was no Red Cross presence, because we had no power and were under an evacuation order, we had to create a makeshift office in my basement by my washer and dryer to print cheques to get money to our members. We were dealing with a population that has no ID, low literacy skills, and no email, so electronic transfers don't work. There was just obstacle after obstacle. Just how things work has to be looked at differently with regard to first nations communities. We can't just set up emails. People have never even had an email before.

ESS was also a nightmare. Our regional district, the TNRD, as Cathy would know, did not set up an ESS, so we were the only game in town. Our staff were thrown into dealing with the surrounding communities that were also completely wiped out: Loon Lake and Boston Flats. We quickly trained our staff. These were staff who also lost their homes so they were evacuated, but they worked, I think, 21 days in a row before I finally made them have a day off. We were servicing our first nation, as well as surrounding communities.

We kept begging and pleading for the regional district to send ESS people to help, to relieve us, but nobody came. We didn't want to turn anyone away. We knew what they had gone through. We were the only ones servicing all these other communities. You can imagine the toll of dealing with people who have just lost everything. They didn't know us. They weren't from our community, but we dealt with them. We begged the province, EMBC, to help as well, “Send us some people; send us some bodies.” That didn't happen. That was one of the biggest frustrations of this whole process.

Another one was wages. We all just started on the emergency right after the fire. We learned after the fact that our staff wages would not be covered. Base wages are not covered, only overtime. If we hire contractors to come in, their wages were 100% covered but ours weren't. If we had laid everybody off and then rehired them, they would have been covered, which is silly. We had no band office. We were under evacuation and we didn't even have a computer.

We're talking a substantial.... I mean, I think it was $60,000 to $70,000 after a few weeks of staff wages and overtime. The response we got from EMBC was to backfill, which sounds great in la-la land, but we were in chaos. How do you find another band administrator or finance person? You can't backfill. That was a huge learning curve. We're still trying to get the money back from INAC. They made big promises when they came to our reserve, but we still haven't seen a penny of that. That's a huge issue that we're still fighting for.

In terms of this, we've learned a lot. We want to share with other first nation communities what we've learned.

Number one is insurance. We increased our insurance every year. We thought we were insured really well. We weren't. When they came in and did the assessments, they assessed our homes very, very low, so the amount.... They came in at this level, to rebuild us up to a much higher level, so we're looking for the federal government to fill that gap. I would tell other first nations to look at that, make sure you know what's insured and how much it's insured for.

Also our emergency plan.... You have probably heard this throughout your sessions. We needed to have a living emergency plan. We had one on the shelf, like other first nation communities, that was collecting dust. Nobody knew where it was or what it looked like. We want to train our staff to be proactive and help other first nation communities when we deal with floods. Whether it's floods or fire, we want to make sure we're trained so we can help.

Right now we're in the rebuilding process, so we are looking at fire prevention measures when we rebuild, in terms of tin roofs, HardiePlank, and landscaping, because any house that had a little bit of lawn was spared. The fire kind of wove its way around. It's amazing how it chose what house to take.

We're also looking at irrigated agriculture fields on our plateau as part of a fire protection measure. I could basically write a book about what we learned this summer. I was sort of the main person and I was thrown into this position of being the face of our fire. But I just want to make sure that we're ready next time, that we're trained. We want to help other first nation communities, and any neighbouring communities, not just first nation, because when the next emergency hits.... We get flooding every year in our area, but also for the next fire. I'm just happy to contribute.

I welcome any questions or comments.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you so much.

We'll start our questioning with MP Mike Bossio.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you so much, Jodene, for being here this morning. We really appreciate your making the trip and for sharing your experiences with us.

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Thank you.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I'd like to delve a little further into that. When you say ready, trained, what do you feel that looks like?

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

EMBC offers training in terms of what the EOC should look like. When it first happened, people kept asking us who was going to be our ops person, our logistics person. I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't even know what an EOC was. ESS people were the gold of this thing. They were the main people to help. Kamloops is lucky enough to have volunteer ESS. We had none of that. Keep in mind the highways were all closed around us, so people couldn't come in and volunteer.

We simply want to make sure people are trained in these areas, and current staff as well, because of the turnover. We want to make sure this is a living document that everyone knows about and can go to, whether the staff changes or not, and that we know what it should look like. I didn't know what it should look like until I went to EMBC and saw the different departments working, and I want to make sure our staff know what that looks like as well.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

How often would you say...? You said this is a living document. How often do you think it should be reviewed, and should there be annual drills conducted so that people are familiar?

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Absolutely. I think at least yearly it should be on our agenda, because we're in an area...especially now that we are hit with fire. Flooding is now a big concern, because our landscape has completely changed. If we were to have heavy rain, it would wipe out our reserve, basically, because there's nothing stopping it.

Our neighbouring community, Cache Creek, gets hit hard with flooding every year. It's not if but when the next emergency is going to happen.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

When you said you were begging and pleading, what were the different organizations you were begging and pleading with?

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Red Cross was the main one.

EMBC had their own chaos going on, but they were really good. They were really good once they sort of got to know us and understood our needs and could address them.

As for the Red Cross, there was no presence. There was no presence. They were in neighbouring communities, we could see, but we had to sort of say, “Come, we need to see you.”

November 28th, 2017 / 11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Not only is there no plan locally within the community, there's no plan as to when an emergency happens between the communities and the Red Cross, the province, or INAC, or who ever it would be. How long was it before you actually....?

I have two points. First is that you had 30 minutes before you had to evacuate. That doesn't leave a lot time in the first place, let alone not having a plan to address it. What do you feel you could have done differently within that 30 minutes that would have helped to prepare you for this situation? Second, how long was it before you actually heard from the Red Cross, the province, and others once you did figure out what to do?

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

The fire was really.... I mean, it's one thing for our reserve to burn, but then the fire continued for a month. This is just an anomaly for it to continue wiping out community after community.

Firefighters simply had to stand back and watch it burn, because it was so fast and so aggressive. I don't know if there was anything that we could have done differently. The main thing was having muster points, meeting points. People were spread all over. We didn't anticipate all the highways being closed around us, so where do you go?

I didn't know where anyone was. The community next to us has hotels. We couldn't get to them.

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Are there fire prevention measures that you think you could have put in place that would have slowed down the impacts, so that you had more than 30 minutes to clear out?

11:50 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Yes. Clearly, our reserve is full of sage brush. They were just burning balls of fire, because the wind was just.... Now we're looking at that. We're going to start clearing. I mentioned agriculture fields are a big thing. We want to start with irrigation. Anybody who had a bit of a lawn was okay.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

How long, once again, was it before you actually got a response from Red Cross and the province?

11:55 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

I got a response within a day or two, but for their actual presence, boots on the ground, it was weeks.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Really?

11:55 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

You were left on your own just to figure out how to fend for yourself.

11:55 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Yes. We didn't know really what to do. I mean, people kept asking, “Where's your EOC?”

“What's an EOC?” I'd say to people. It was tough. I don't want another community to ever be in that position again, to not even know where to start.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

Okay.

I'd like to thank you so much, Jodene.

11:55 a.m.

Band Administrator, Ashcroft Indian Band

Jodene Blain

Thank you.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mike Bossio Liberal Hastings—Lennox and Addington, ON

I'd like to pass the rest of my time over to MP Amos.

11:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Okay. You have a minute and a half.