I will never forget my visit to Jimmy Colomb’s house on the Mathias Colomb First Nation in northern Manitoba.
The back entrance led to a bottom level where two bedrooms surrounded a furnace, water tanks and a small storage area. Upstairs there was a combined living room/kitchen, two more bedrooms and a bathroom with a toilet and a shower.
A young Cree woman lived in one of the bedrooms downstairs, sharing a couple of mattresses and dressers with her three children. Her sister and sister’s boyfriend lived in the other downstairs bedroom with their three kids.
Jimmy Colomb was the head of the house. He and his wife, and her mother and father, along with their three grown children and their families, all lived on the top floor. Some other relatives and friends also lived in the house. There were mattresses everywhere and the 26 residents showered and ate in shifts.
As I walked through the house, children seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. It was a busy, but relatively happy place. The television set kept a lot of them occupied.
But I had to wonder: what if there was a fire in the middle of the night? Not only was access to the two exits, back and front doors, mostly blocked by belongings, furnishings and the like, I could see little hope that 26 people, mostly little ones, could be organized to exit as fast as a wooden structure would be expected to go up in flames.
That wasn't the only problem. The lone fire truck in the community didn’t start in cold weather, the water lines did not extend to the house, and the only trained firefighter available was part-time. The rest were volunteers.
It was a credit to newly-elected Chief Arlen Dumas that he was able to negotiate better firefighting equipment and build 46 new homes the year after I visited (2009), but there are plenty of other First Nation waiting in line for minimal fire safety measures in their community — the kind they now have in Mathias Colomb.
Can you imagine any other Canadian citizen living with this kind of danger when they try to go to sleep at night?
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada estimates that it will take a $28-million injection of federal funding to reduce the number of deadly fires on First Nations in Manitoba, according to a report obtained by the Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
But only $4 million is available, even though AANDC highlights fires on First Nations as "high risk.”
The report says the high rate of fire losses on Manitoba First Nations is the result of several factors including the operation and maintenance of housing stock, training and retaining firefighters, the need for fire prevention awareness and the challenges presented to firefighters due to the climate, and isolation of remote communities.
The federal government provides $26 million annually for fire protection services across the entire country, yet they expect First Nations in Manitoba to somehow protect their people from the ravages of fire by “prioritizing their spending” when they get their share of that $4 million. In other words, perhaps they might be able to find some extra money in other budget areas that can be diverted to fire safety since it is such an important priority.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs rightfully claims that it's nearly impossible for First Nations to divert funds to fire protection when they don't even have enough money to meet other basic needs.
”How do you prioritize when there are challenges with safe drinking water in a community?" he asked. "How do you prioritize when you need 100 homes in the community and people are living 15 to 20 people in a house?
Imagine the children sleeping on those mattresses in the windowless basement bedrooms in Jimmy Colomb’s home. When a fire breaks out on the top floor, there is no way they can escape. How can you put a value on a child’s life?
Even if a First Nation gets lucky and receives new firefighting equipment, it is not accompanied by the funds needed to train people to operate it. Some of the people who volunteer for firefighting in these communities don’t even receive training in CPR because there is no money available.
Fire safety officials recommend prevention measures like smoke alarms, safe heating devices and easy access exits, but only the former is affordable in many cases.
But a smoke alarm cannot continue to be the only safety measure in a house where 26 people have to live.
Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer and the editor of Grassroots News.