IF TRAGEDY has a home, it is on Canada’s First Nations. The litany of violence and death has become a sadly predictable fixture in this country. Youth suicide. Assault and sexual assault. Rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Unusual disease rates. Substandard housing and services.
But no reality is sadder, surely, than the rate of fatal house fires and their horrendous death toll. A 2010 federal report found that residents of Canada’s First Nations are 10 times more likely to die in a fire than people in other communities. The reasons behind that shocking fact are not well understood.
The latest such tragedy occurred May 2 on a small Oji-Cree reserve called Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, or KI, located nearly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. A single mother, her daughter and three adopted children died when a pre-dawn fire engulfed their home. Three neighbours were injured trying to save the family but it seems they didn’t stand a chance. The local fire truck was reportedly not operational and in any case there were no fire hoses. The fire hall remains uncompleted.
This fire follows one in 2016 on the Pikangikum First Nation north of Kenora where nine people, including three children, died while a loose assortment of residents took the empty fire truck to the centre of town to fill it with water. By the time they tried to navigate the muddy road to the house it was all but gone. There is no dedicated fire service in Pikangikum.
Similar stories abound and astound. From a list compiled by CTV:
February 2015: Two children are killed in a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan reserve in Saskatchewan. The reserve had a working fire truck, but had never used it because it wasn’t properly equipped and no one was trained. The band had hired the volunteer fire department in a neighbouring village, but was cut off from services because it had stopped paying its bills.
January 2011: A woman dies in a house fire on the Roseau River reserve in Manitoba. Firefighters were left without water to battle the blaze because the community’s fire hydrants were frozen, not having had their annual maintenance the previous year.
That same month a 2 1/2-year old child dies in a house fire in St. Theresa Point, Man. The community’s fire truck was broken with no hoses and no one knew where the keys were.
In many of these cases, Indigenous leaders have been quick to blame the federal government for failing to provide adequate fire resources and modern housing. The latter is cause for real concern and the sooner building standards can be applied on First Nations the better. But when it comes to firefighting, the complaints are less credible.
A day after the KI fire, Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the regional Nishnawbe Aski Nation said efforts to improve fire safety can be stymied when, for example, a move to put smoke detectors in every home fails because there is no one to install them. A basic detector is installed by inserting a common battery and turning a screw into a wall to hang the device.
Just after the Pikangikum fire, NAN established Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign, named for the youngest victim, “to promote fire safety and awareness in all NAN First Nations.” Goals included development of a comprehensive plan for fire protection including fire-fighting equipment, and proper installation and maintenance of smoke detectors. By 2017, detectors had been provided to seven of NAN’s 49 member communities.
In the aftermath of the Pikangikum fire, Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was skeptical about a federal offer to try to improve fire services, saying that any new measures must be accompanied by additional money for fire trucks, fire halls and other safety-related assets. In fact, there is a good deal of money available for reserve fire services but it isn’t always being used for that purpose.
Indigenous Services Canada annually funds fire protection services including firefighting, operating fire halls, purchasing equipment like fire trucks, training and educating firefighters. The money comes as part of a First Nation’s core capital funding.
Between 2008 and 2017, the department provided nearly $29 million annually for fire protection services. This included $4.9 million for training. It also provides approximately $220,000 per year to the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC) to organize awareness and training events.
On reserves, fire protection is managed by the band council which chooses how to spend these funds. KI has a fire chief and a fire prevention officer. Duties include fire education and “home safety which includes ensuring all homes are equipped (and annually inspected) with smoke alarms and charged fire extinguishers.”
Investigation of this fire is ongoing; it is not known if there was a working detector or an extinguisher in the home.
“As long as conditions remain the same — the lack of policy, the lack of legislation, the lack of standards or of codes — our communities, our families will remain at risk,” said Fiddler last week.
The Joint First Nations Fire Strategy was developed in 2010. A partnership between Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and AFAC, it is intended to promote and ensure fire prevention education and fire service operational standards. INAC proposes working directly with First Nations and First Nations organizations, such as NAN, to improve community fire prevention and infrastructure.
“Legislation is good only if there are identified financial resources to support it,” said Bellegarde after the Pikangikum fire. By this time INAC had committed an additional $255 million, over and above annual core funding, to the First Nations Infrastructure Fund and indicated a desire to work together, especially with underserviced First Nations, to improve firefighting capacity. That must include water system upgrades to put sufficient hydrants in place and provision of certified wood stoves, training for which has occurred on six reserves.
There are employment opportunities here, to install and maintain alarms and stoves. Most important, the money is there to buy fire trucks and equipment and to train firefighters on First Nations. It is up to every First Nation, and regional groups like NAN, to use the funds and programs at their disposal. If that’s not happening, calls for more funding must ring hollow to the families of the multiple victims of fires in their communities.
(Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.)