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Government of Canada response to The Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs: From the Ashes: Re-imagining Fire Safety and Emergency Management in Indigenous Cummunities

Press Release

INTRODUCTION

The Government of Canada thanks the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (the Committee) for its study and for developing recommendations to improve fire safety and emergency management on reserve. The Government of Canada welcomes the eleven recommendations set out in the Committee’s Report, From the Ashes: Reimagining Fire Safety and Emergency Management in Indigenous Communities (the Report) .

Canada is committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. This commitment is included in every Minister’s mandate letter and has been reiterated by the Prime Minister on various occasions.

The Government of Canada takes it commitment to reconciliation seriously and acknowledges that past systems, approaches, and methods have not worked. Top down colonial approaches have defined the Crown-Indigenous relationship for far too long. Canada has started and must continue on a path to right these wrongs in partnership with Indigenous peoples, provincial and territorial governments, and all Canadians.

The Committee’s eleven recommendations address what the Committee heard from witnesses on the significant gaps in the current approach to fire safety and emergency management on reserve. The witnesses expressed particular frustration with respect to issues such as ill-defined roles and responsibilities, inadequate preparedness funding, and inadequate and outdated fire safety policies and programs.

Many of the recommendations included in the Report reflect what the Government of Canada has been hearing in a variety of fora from Indigenous partners. Through this ongoing dialogue, the Government of Canada is tailoring its approach to both fire safety and emergency management to better reflect the needs and priorities of Indigenous communities.

As such, for emergency management, the shift to trilateral emergency management service agreements is an expression of the Government’s commitment to a renewed relationship with First Nations as full and equal partners. In doing so, Indigenous Services Canada is putting its mandate into action. These trilateral service agreements will set out a roadmap to empowering and supporting Indigenous partners in enhancing their resilience.

In 2018, wildfires once again severely affected the province of British Columbia, including on-reserve residents. Informal feedback from First Nations indicates that emergency management response was better coordinated, namely through enhanced communication, compared to 2017. This can be seen as a result of a better integration of First Nations partners into emergency management systems.

As was done last year, the Government of Canada will look to participate in any review processes following the 2018 wildfires in British Columbia to further inform the approach to emergency management on reserve.

As it relates to Fire Protection, programs and initiatives are well underway to improve structural fire safety in Indigenous communities through fire safety education programs, enhancing prevention and response capacity, and developing partnerships to improve fire safety on reserve.

Recommendation 1

That Indigenous Services Canada, recognizing First Nations as equal partners, work with them and provinces and territories through trilateral agreements to clarify the various roles and responsibilities regarding emergency management in First Nation communities.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The Government clearly recognizes that First Nations must be full and equal partners in any process moving forward. Over the past 18 months, 313 eligible First Nations in British Columbia and Ontario have signed bilateral agreements. Yet at the same time, the Government is cognizant that the current system of bilateral agreements does not fully meet the needs of First Nations especially in cases where consultation undertaken during their negotiation was either limited or simply not performed. Further, the agreements currently cover just over 62 percent of all eligible First Nations.

ISC aspires to have 100% of eligible Indigenous communities covered by trilateral emergency management service agreements going forward. Efforts and planning are underway with First Nation partners to explore solutions that will address this issue.

A positive example of this shift is the recently signed Collaborative Agreement on Emergency Management with the Tsilhqot’in National Government, the Government of Canada and the province of British Columbia to collaborate on emergency management priorities and initiatives. This is the first trilateral agreement of its kind in Canada and can serve as a model for other future agreements.

Recommendation 2

That Indigenous Services Canada, in cooperation with First Nations, review its Emergency Management Assistance Program to ensure that funding provided addresses the actual needs of First Nations; that in so doing, the department also ensure that sufficient funding is allocated for emergency preparedness activities, such as developing, updating and implementing emergency response plans.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The importance of emergency preparedness, especially in times of increasing intensity and severity of emergency events, demands this. Emergency Response Plans are invaluable tools for any community. The success of such preparedness measures is well-documented.

The Government is working with First Nation partners on options to best address this issue. The result could see increased capacity at the community level, ultimately enhancing resilience. Complementary to this, clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all parties would be enunciated in any trilateral service agreements under all four pillars of emergency management (prevention, mitigation, response and recovery).

Recommendation 3

That Indigenous Services Canada, through tripartite agreements, ensure that emergency service providers, where feasible, engage, train and employ local workforce from the communities for fire prevention and fire suppression, and that financial compensation is provided.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The trilateral agreements, with all parties as full and equal partners, will contain clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It will include provisions to leverage the local workforce where feasible providing appropriate financial compensation.

The Government continues to partner with First Nations to identify options that will complement the trilateral emergency management service agreements to ensure the fuller integration of Indigenous expertise into existing emergency management regimes. Since 2017, ISC’s approach also shifted to include a focus on empowering Indigenous communities through adequate resources, partnership building and integration of Indigenous peoples into the broader emergency management protocols, including through moving from bilateral to trilateral emergency management agreements. This respects the knowledge, capabilities, and perspectives brought by First Nation partners and ensures greater First Nations’ control in the planning, development and implementation of on-reserve emergency management. ISC is undertaking a focused approach toward building the complement of trilateral service agreements region-by-region by assigning dedicated staff to ensure this initiative does not lose momentum. Progress on the development of the trilateral approach will be staggered across the country based on how engagements with First Nation partners are advancing and whether there is an existing bilateral agreement that must be addressed. For instance, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (the Indigenous Representative Organization in Saskatchewan) has been provided funding to conduct province-wide engagements with their member First Nations and Tribal Councils. This engagement process will determine how First Nation partners wish to be reflected in the on-reserve emergency management service agreement in their province. A similar arrangement is in place with the Chiefs of Ontario as well as First Nation representative bodies in British Columbia.

Recommendation 4

That Indigenous Services Canada support local collaboration efforts between First Nation and non-First Nation communities to identify a systematic approach to ensuring First Nations expertise and knowledge of lands and fire behaviour is shared with emergency service providers during and leading up to a response.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

Supporting local collaboration of First Nations as full and equal partners under trilateral emergency management service agreements is the foundation of the envisioned tripartite agreements. This will help advance the Government of Canada’s commitment and mandate of a renewed relationship with First Nation peoples, working in partnership and cooperation based on respect, recognition of rights and Indigenous self-determination. ISC aims to increase support for initiatives that are community-driven and based on traditional knowledge, particularly for disaster risk reduction. For instance, community-based and Indigenous-led FireSmart pilot projects in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have been funded to support wildfire prevention and mitigation initiatives. This work will be expanded in the coming fiscal year(s) to ensure that other First Nations that are prone to wildland fires are afforded the opportunity to build their capacity, resilience and protections for their communities.

Further, such support fulfills the Government of Canada’s international commitment as laid out in the Sendai Framework, an international Disaster Risk Reduction framework. The Framework calls upon States to, “ensure the use of traditional, Indigenous and local knowledge and practices, as appropriate, to complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment and the development and implementation of policies, strategies, plans and programs.…”. By partnering with First Nations, relevant policies will be grounded in Indigenous knowledge.

Recommendation 5

That Indigenous Services Canada require tripartite agreements to include training for key staff on traditional cultures and practices in order to ensure that high-quality and culturally appropriate services are delivered; and in jurisdictions where the federal government is not involved in an emergency response, encourage those leading the efforts to engage with local First Nations to provide necessary training.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The culture, languages and traditions of Indigenous peoples, their individual and collective histories and, in some instances, their socio-economic circumstances must remain a priority during any interactions in emergency events.

For example, in Manitoba, the Canadian Red Cross provides emergency management services on-reserve on behalf of the Government. For all staff sent to emergency events, in partnership with First Nations, cultural sensitivity training is now mandatory to ensure they are prepared to best meet Indigenous needs.

The integration of Indigenous partners in the trilateral emergency management service agreements will see their leadership and cultural competence guiding the shaping and design of relevant policies.

Recommendation 6

That Indigenous Services Canada, through tripartite agreements:

  • Require that one or more resource person(s) be identified to assist with the registration of evacuees and to highlight their specific needs;
  • Ensure that a contact person be available throughout an evacuation to respond to emerging needs or concerns, which could include but not be limited to translation services, medical care and mental health supports;
  • Ensure that all pertinent information be communicated with relevant contacts from a First Nation community.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

Going forward in all trilateral agreements, provisions will be included to formalize the process of administering evacuees. This will take into account the unique needs of Indigenous peoples as well as serving as a conduit for situational awareness. The Government already has this arrangement in place for the Kashechewan pre-emptive annual evacuations.

In preparing for and responding to emergencies, ISC supports the availability and accessibility of health services to on reserve First Nation communities. ISC is working both bilaterally and through regional tripartite mechanisms to raise awareness of the planning needs of First Nation communities among national and regional government and non-government stakeholders, while at the same time working closely with communities to advise on and support the development, testing and periodic revision of their health plans. Preferably, these health plans should be incorporated into existing emergency response plans in the community.

Recognition of the heightened risks to both personal and community health and safety during states of local emergency and/or during evacuations, necessitates the early identification of individuals in relation to a specific position and/or roles and responsibilities. ISC will require, through existing and/or new tripartite agreements, that one or more resource person(s) be identified at the appropriate level (e.g. tribal authority) to assist with the registration of evacuees and to highlight their specific needs.

This principal person(s) would have knowledge, skills and abilities to facilitate meeting the health and wellness needs through the provision of expertise and linkages to various health services that support the specific needs of evacuees.

Trilateral agreements will also clearly detail how all pertinent information will be communicated with relevant contacts from a First Nation community. This would support mitigation efforts against the established elevated risks associated with evacuations, community displacement and adverse health effects, both short and long term, experienced by community members and families during and after emergency events. This would also allow for the growing of a network of providers, sharing of best practices, lessons learned, mental health and wellness supports, and established communication amongst the tripartite partners as well as the community governance structure, fostering self-determination and resilience within the nation-to-nation relationship.

ISC will continue to work internally to establish strong and collaborative working relationships that allow the department to strengthen internal emergency management capacity in all 4 pillars of emergency management and to ensure improved support and service delivery in all-hazard emergencies in First Nation communities.

Recommendation 7

That Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, recognizing the growing importance of broadband and cellular telecommunications infrastructure in delivering emergency response measures, and given the existing gaps in such infrastructure in rural and Indigenous communities across Canada, evaluate new mechanisms that will enable an accelerated deployment of such infrastructure in emergency situations facing Indigenous communities.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development has processes in place for the assignment of radiofrequencies under emergency situations to facilitate the deployment of temporary critical infrastructure by telecommunications service providers during emergencies. This can include the augmentation of existing capacity and temporary replacement of critical infrastructure in impacted areas. Recognizing the importance of broadband and cellular telecommunications services for Canadians, in recent years, the Department has put in place programs such as Connecting Canadians and Connect to Innovate to ensure Canadians in rural and remote communities, including Indigenous communities, have improved access to high-speed Internet service. The Department continues to explore options to further address this issue.

Recommendation 8

That Indigenous Services Canada clarify the claims process and criteria for emergency response and recovery expenses on reserve; and that the department provide greater support to regional offices to expedite the timely reimbursement of claims; further, that the department clarify the claims process and criteria for expenses incurred by First Nations that provide emergency support services to non-First Nation communities, and that claims be reimbursed in a timely manner.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

ISC covers 100% of all eligible response and recovery costs related to emergency events on-reserve. The Terms and Conditions for support are available on the Department’s website. Understanding the challenging circumstances of emergencies, the Department’s regional staff can provide timely responses on these matters as well as some flexibility. The Department is currently working on ensuring wider dissemination of its emergency preparedness programming and recovery funding for First Nations and, since last year, has been improving its communications and web platforms in order to clarify the processes and eligibility conditions for First Nations partners. In addition, the trilateral emergency management service agreements will clarify these processes going forward.

The Government of Canada is exploring options to further address this issue with First Nations.

Recommendation 9

That Indigenous Services Canada, in cooperation with First Nation communities and the provincial government in British Columbia, review recommendations in the recently-published report, Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia , and develop an action plan for implementation.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

The 2017 British Columbia wildfires were the worst on record. These were preceded by severe spring flooding/freshet, culminating in the largest back-to-back emergency activation in provincial history. Subsequently, multiple after action reviews were undertaken by First Nations, provincial agencies and ISC. In addition, the independent review by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman resulted in the report entitled Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia which includes 108 associated recommendations. The Government of British Columbia, through Emergency Management British Columbia, is already acting on 19 of the recommendations and, by October 31, 2018, will develop an action plan to address all of them.

Although the Abbott-Chapman report is provincial in scope, it identifies a number of areas where ISC has a significant role to play to ensure that First Nations are better recognized and supported within the system. ISC has carefully reviewed all 108 recommendations in the Abbott-Chapman Report along with the Standing Committee’s 11 recommendations. Although these reports and associated recommendations are complementary, they each bring additional perspectives and lessons learned to bear with respect to system improvements and innovation. Overall, the Department recognizes that the recommendations speak to the goal shared by all partners to build an emergency management system that improves outcomes for all Canadians, First Nations and non-First Nations, and that better integrates First Nations communities, knowledge and cultures.

Consistent with the recommendation of the Abbott-Chapman report, ISC is engaged with the First Nations Leadership Council, the First Nations Emergency Services Society, and British Columbia (British Columbia Wildfire Service, Emergency Management British Columbia) regarding developing a pathway to a trilateral emergency management service approach for emergency management in British Columbia. This would more appropriately recognize First Nations as equal partners with respect to emergency management and foster cultural safety within response systems. Additionally, based on challenges and lessons stemming from the 2017 wildfires, the Tsilhqot’in National Government, ISC and the province of British Columbia negotiated the Tsilhqot’in Collaborative Agreement on Emergency Management. This is the first tripartite agreement of its kind in Canada, and will build knowledge in terms of nation-based approaches to emergency management.

Recommendation 10

That Indigenous Services Canada allocate additional resources for First Nations to develop and implement fire prevention campaigns, such as Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation and affirms the importance of ongoing efforts on this issue. Working with First Nations to improve fire safety on reserve is a priority for the Government of Canada, and several initiatives are underway to address the fire protection gap in First Nation communities.

ISC has a smoke alarm program underway to install smoke alarms in homes on reserve. This public education and awareness initiative aims to prevent loss of life by increasing the number of working smoke alarms in First Nation homes where existing alarms may be damaged or missing. It also aims to foster collaborative partnerships between First Nation communities, regional First Nation firefighter and technical organizations, tribal councils, provincial and municipal governments, and private sector partners involved in fire prevention. The initiative was formally launched in early 2015, and the Department invested nearly $2.4 million in regional projects to support the installation of smoke alarms in First Nation homes across the country, and awareness about their use. The investment was in addition to the average $26.9 million a year that is delivered nationally to First Nations for fire protection services. Through coordination with First Nation partner organizations, approximately 73,755 smoke alarms have been installed in First Nation homes across Canada.

ISC has partnered with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada on the BeFireSafe awareness campaign that encourages fire prevention in Indigenous communities through educational materials that highlight seasonal fire safety tips throughout the year.

ISC is committed to ensuring First Nation communities have the equipment and training needed to respond effectively to fires, save lives, and protect property. This is one of the founding principles of the Joint First Nation Fire Protection Strategy (2016-2021), which guides the Department’s work with First Nations and other key Indigenous partners such as the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada.

The Joint First Nation Fire Protection Strategy was developed by the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada and ISC, and shares many of the same goals as the Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign, such as improving education and awareness about fire safety in Indigenous communities, capacity building and development of partnerships to better support fire protection on reserve. Midterm review of the strategy will be undertaken in Fall 2018 to review early deliverables and to establish a path forward on fire awareness. The Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign will be used to inform future activities planned under the Joint Fire Protection Strategy into 2021 and beyond.

Recommendation 11

That Indigenous Services Canada, in collaboration with First Nations, establish an independent Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office in order to promote fire safety and prevention in First Nation communities including but not limited to activities such as undertaking public education and awareness campaigns, implementing standardized training for fire safety officials, developing and enforcing fire safety standards and building codes, and conducting regular building inspections; that to allow the Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office to effectively perform its role, a robust data collection system be developed and implemented; and that First Nations provide input and be informed of the progress of this initiative.

Response

The Government of Canada accepts this recommendation.

Addressing the issue of fire safety in First Nation communities is a priority for ISC. The Department is committed to supporting Indigenous partners and communities as they move toward self-determination. One of the objectives of an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office would be to empower First Nations to develop an Indigenous-led institution and deliver programs and services that better serve the needs of their communities.

Supporting the establishment of an independent Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office is in line with ISC’s mandate to transfer infrastructure delivery in Indigenous communities to Indigenous-led institutions. The Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, a credible, established, national Indigenous organization with regional First Nation representation throughout Canada, has been leading the effort to create an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office since 2016.

In March 2017, the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada published a Report entitled “Transforming Fire Services on Reserve in Canada”, which provided several recommendations, including the creation of a Fire Marshal’s Office. This recommendation was broadly endorsed by subject matter experts (the Canadian Association of Fire Chief, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners) as a potentially significant way to address gaps in fire prevention and protection that are causing a disproportionate loss of life and property in First Nation communities. An Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office could in time help to remedy these problems by enabling and increasing the capacity of First Nation fire services, addressing existing policy gaps, and implementing advancements in fire service and construction fire safety.

The Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada is currently working to finalize an engagement strategy, with funding and support from ISC. Preliminary engagement on interest in and possible functions of an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office with key Indigenous partners across the country began in early 2017, with additional engagement sessions in January 2018, revealing support for such an initiative. Further engagement sessions with Indigenous partners and communities across Canada are scheduled to begin in October 2018 and continue into to Fall/Winter 2019. The focus of these sessions will be to elicit feedback on the scope, mandate, governance structure, and essential services and programs of an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office. More importantly, input will be sought on the most appropriate ways to improve fire safety in Indigenous communities. A final round of engagement sessions in 2019-2020 is expected to inform recommendations on required functions and the possible form that an Office could take.

The mission of an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office, as envisioned by the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, would be to support First Nation communities and their fire departments in the enhancement of their fire protection services, build capacity within communities, and eliminate loss of life and property. The Office could also serve to educate communities through the delivery of culturally appropriate awareness campaigns, help install smoke alarms in First Nation homes, assist in the implementation of standards, and collect fire-related data. In time, the organization might also develop and enforce building and fire code regulations, conduct inspections, and help increase capacity for fire protection in remote communities or those lacking viable fire protection services.

ISC fully supports the national engagement process being led by the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada to create an independent Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office. Once the engagement process is complete, the Government will be in a position to work with partners to determine the final structure, mandate and governance model for the Office.

Conclusion

The Government would like to thank the Committee for its work on this issue and its recommendations. The Government would also like to thank all those that appeared as witnesses and provided testimony. This Report highlights gaps in the current approach and suggests a way forward. Together as equal partners, the Government looks forward to supporting Indigenous efforts in enhancing the resilience of their communities and by extension Canada.

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