53 First Nations reserves lack adequate fire protection: audit
President of Aboriginal Firefighters Association says number is likely higher
An Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada audit has found that 53 First Nations reserves lack adequate resources to fight fires.
The internal audit identified 14 "underserviced" sites (13 in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba) and 39 "limited service sites" (17 in Ontario, 22 in British Columbia) in a briefing note prepared for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and obtained by CBC News through an Access to Information request.
Although the July 15, 2016, briefing note stresses the numbers could change, the department says the figures are the latest "snapshot" of the state of firefighting resources in communities on the department's watch list.
"There shouldn't be any communities on that list," says the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Perry Bellegarde.
"We've got 634 First Nations across Canada. There shouldn't be any communities on that list that shows that there's a lack of resources when it comes to fire…. It's not acceptable in 2017."
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The department defines "underserviced" and "limited service" sites as those that have limited access to fire trucks and lack knowledge about safety measures such as "installing fire extinguishers, installing smoke alarms and conducting fire drills."
The department says it is withholding the names of the reserves due to privacy concerns.
As far as the executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC) is concerned, the number of communities in need of greater fire protection is actually much higher than the 53 identified in the briefing note.
Blain Wiggins cites British Columbia as an example. "There are about 80 FN fire departments [in the province]. Half of them are deemed dysfunctional, which means they lack the resources and infrastructure to fight fires," he says. "So there's 40 communities right there."
Wiggins says that's one of the reasons his organization continues to push for a more comprehensive national strategy to improve fire safety on reserves.
The Indigenous affairs minister says her department is trying to find answers. "We are working in partnership with the Aboriginal Firefighters' Association of Canada, communities and partners on preventative measures to reduce the risk of fire incidents on reserve," Bennett's office said in a statement to CBC News.
"We know more needs to be done, and we will continue to work together on creative, community-led solutions and a whole-of-government approach to keep communities safe," the statement said.
But working together to find solutions could prove challenging.
There is no consistent enforcement of building codes, no requirement for building inspections and no requirement to report fire deaths on reserves. AFAC says it wants legislation covering these areas — a measure the minister supports.
However, Bellegarde is skeptical, insisting that any new laws must be accompanied by additional money for fire trucks, fire halls and other safety-related assets deemed to be essential.
"Legislation is good only if there are identified financial resources to support it," he said in an interview with CBC News.
So far, the minister's statement only points to money it has already committed — an additional $255 million it is providing to the First Nations Infrastructure Fund — and its desire to work together.
- This story has been updated to correctly identify Blain Wiggins as executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada.
May 24, 2017 3:25 PM ET