Indigenous Services Minister committed to 'closing infrastructure gap' for fire resources in First Nations
Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation frustrated it took death of a child for government to address disparity
Canada's minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said work is underway to address infrastructure deficits in First Nations.
Last month, a 10-year-old girl died in a house fire in Peawanuck.
Patty Hajdu called the fatal house fire 'heart-breaking.'
The remote northern Ontario community in Weenusk First Nation did not have the fire resources to put out the fire before the girl died.
"Every single tragedy is heart-breaking, and I can tell you that the government must continue to do the work that we committed to, which is closing that infrastructure gap, pushing on long-standing change, not just from a funding perspective, but from a structural perspective to help communities with the governance and supports that they need," Hajdu said.
Funding increase for Weenusk FN
Since the fire Jan. 28, Hajdu has been meeting with the chief of Weenusk and other Indigenous partners to determine what the community needs.
Federal funding has been increased for a new community fire hall. ISC said it's increasing the amount it's providing for annual maintenance costs of the fire hall from $5,908 to $21,619.
The community will work with Ontario First Nations Technical Services to design and build that facility.
ISC also provided $10,447 annually for the recruitment and training of volunteer fire fighters.
In Jan 2022, ISC approved $506,640 for a new fire truck for Weenusk.
Because it's a remote fly-in community the fire truck has to be driven over the winter ice road. That vehicle will be delivered from Winnipeg next month.
'We have to do better'
Hajdu said she's aware of the infrastructure deficit for First Nations all across the country.
"Children and elders in particular, are at a high risk of losing their lives when house fires occur on First Nations, and so this is a priority for me, it has been since I was appointed Minister of Indigenous Services and realized the extent of the problem," Hajdu said.
"We have to do better."
"These deaths are all preventable actually, and we have to do a better job as a nation, as nations together to protect the people that depend on us," Hajdu said.
Hajdu said there is a "blend of challenges" in First Nations when it comes to fire-fighting, including aging infrastructure, crowded houses, a lack of fire safety codes and capacity around training.
She has been meeting with representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous Fire Safety Council and the Indigenous fire marshal to discuss "what kinds of systemic change needs to happen to enable communities to have better capacity to prevent fire and to fight them."
"There isn't one simple answer, there are multiple areas that need attention and improvement."
Hajdu said a 'fire gathering' is being planned in the coming months for Indigenous experts and leaders to discuss challenges in Indigenous communities.
Anna Betty Achneepineskum said most First Nations communities have already identified their needs, and just need the funds for those resources.
She's the deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) which governs the 49 First Nations in Ontario.
She's frustrated that it took the tragic loss of a child for the government to take notice of disparities in fire resources.
"It's not fair that we have to wait until someone dies in the community before we get a fire truck."
According to Achneepineskum, NAN has a strategy in place to address disparity in fire resources.
"It's quite disturbing in terms of what we do not have."
"In terms of the disparity of the type of resources and funds that go into a First Nation I would say it's not able to accommodate for that ongoing effective service to be in place," Achneepineskum said.
She said that within the strategy NAN plans to pursue that each First Nation has the supplies, resources and infrastructure to prevent further loss of life.
"Every First Nation within Nishnawbe Aski Nation should have a fire truck, should have a fire station to accommodate the needs," she said.
Achneepineskum said there have been too many deaths because fire infrastructure simply wasn't available, and most of those fatalities have been children.
"It's just happening too much."
When asked what she thought of Indigenous Services Canada providing an increase in funding to Weenusk First Nation, Achneepineskum said she wished that had happened last year.
"Then maybe this young lady would still be with us," she said.
The funeral for the young girl who died in the Jan 28 house fire is planned for Wednesday, Feb 8.