Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation fire reflects inadequate resources for reserves

A fire at the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan that killed two toddlers reflects the lack of adequate resources available to First Nations communities for fire services, say aboriginal groups.

Fire services underfunded, but regulation of building codes and safety practices also lacking

First Nation fire response controversy

8 years ago
Duration 2:08
Sask. fire that killed 2 toddlers highlights the lack of firefighting resources for First Nations: aboriginal groups

A fire at the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan that killed two toddlers reflects the lack of adequate resources available to First Nations communities for fire services, say aboriginal groups.​

The volunteer fire department of nearby Loon Lake said it did not respond to the fire, because the First Nation owed the village $3,380.89.​

Deaths from fires on First Nations reserves are 10 times higher than in similar off-reserve communities, according to a 2010 strategy on fire protection by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). Fires, in general, are twice as common on reserves than off.

This speaks to the lack of adequate resources available to First Nations communities, say aboriginal groups.

“Makwa Sahgaiehcan, like other First Nations across [Saskatchewan], does not receive sufficient funding to cover even two fire calls per year from the municipal volunteer fire department,” the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said in a statement released Thursday.

“Unless there is a significant increase in funding, there is no way First Nations can meet any kind of fire safety codes and regulations,” said FSIN vice-chief Dutch Lerat.

Formula-based funding

The federal government provides $26.3 million in core funding for fire services each year to all First Nations communities throughout the country, which can go toward equipment and infrastructure (such as fire trucks and fire halls), operations and maintenance of the equipment and firefighter training.

Funding levels are determined by a regionally based formula, according to Aboriginal Affairs, which factors in the number of buildings on reserve, remoteness, population and local environment. Local band councils manage fire protection services on reserve and prioritize spending according to their needs. Communities can divert funding meant for fire services to other areas that are more urgent.

“In Saskatchewan, just last year, some of the funds allocated to First Nations helped to purchase three fire trucks, the construction of three fire halls, as well as fire protection equipment for four First Nation communities,” a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt wrote in an email to CBC News.

Since 1997, Aboriginal Affairs has outlined exactly what it’s prepared to financially support to assist First Nations communities in providing services available to comparable non-aboriginal communities.

For example, in communities with fewer than 10 residences, where trucks are not viable or effective or locations where one part is difficult to reach by road, the government may help provide water trailers, portable pumps, insulated fire sheds and protective clothing.

Primarily volunteer firefighters

But a source within the Assembly of First Nations, who agreed to speak with CBC News only on background, said there's a problem with the overall infrastructure within communities.

He said, for example, that often there is not enough fuel on reserves to heat the fire halls, so fire trucks are in the cold in the wintertime and unable to respond to calls fast enough. There also might not be adequate water infrastructure with the proper pressure to combat fires. 

Firefighting is done primarily by First Nation volunteers and in some case paid firefighters, according to the Aboriginal Affairs 2010 strategy. Communities can also share fire services with nearby towns with a mutual aid agreement, which was the case for the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.

The community received $40,000 from the federal government this year for fire services.

Letters between the Makwa First Nation and Loon Lake, the neighbouring town that provided volunteer fire services, reveal the cost of fire services — including $400 per hour for a fire truck, $300 per hour for a water truck, $30 per hour for a fire chief and $25 per hour for a firefighter. All fires have a minimum three-hour call out, reads the letter.

That means one fire response call handled by two volunteers could cost the community at least $1,350.

Entire gamut of fire services needed

Another challenge is the regulatory gap where no inspections or building codes are mandated, said Blaine Wiggins of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, which receives about $200,000 from Aboriginal Affairs to co-ordinate prevention initiatives.

Without enforceable requirements or national standards, he said, safety issues don’t get fixed.

Fire services are not just about suppressing fires, he said in an interview with CBC News, but also about building codes, as well as home safety, prevention programs and general awareness.

“What’s needed is the entire gamut of fire services,” Wiggins said, in order to get First Nation reserves to be comparable to off-reserve communities.

One of the key long-term priorities of the government’s 2010 strategy (which wraps up this year) is to address the regulatory gap.

Wiggins, who recently met with officials in Ottawa, said a new strategy is set to be in place in about a month or so.

In the meantime, fire services on many reserves remain deficient and there hasn't been much improvement.

“Just an improved understanding of what the problems are,” he said