Thunder Bay

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler brings recommendations for better fire safety in First Nations to Ottawa

Representatives from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) spoke to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAF) in Ottawa Tuesday.

Lack of regulations are causing "needless deaths in our communities," according to Fiddler

Nine people, including a baby and two young children, died in a house fire Pikangikum in 2016. The incident helped launch the Nishnawbe Aski Nation's Amber Campaign to address issues facing fire safety in First Nations communities. (Kyle Peters/The Canadian Press)

Representatives from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) spoke to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAF) in Ottawa Tuesday, bringing with them long-running safety concerns in a number of First Nations.

NAN's Grand Chief, Alvin Fiddler, along with housing and infrastructure director, Michael McKay and Thunder Bay Fire Chief John Hay spoke to the committee about recommendations from the Amber Campaign.

"You know the fundamental issue here is the utter lack of standards of any kind in our communities," said Fiddler.

There is currently no oversight for enforcing housing codes or fire standards causing "needless deaths in our communities," according to Fiddler.

In March, 2016 Pikangikum First Nation lost nine people in a house fire including three children. The Amber Campaign is named after Amber Strang, a 5-month-old who died in that fire. Mishkeegogamang First Nation has also lost about 30 people since 1980 to fires, said Fiddler.

It's unknown how many people have died due to fires in NAN's territory, which stretches across northern Ontario and includes 49 Indigenous communities.

"That's one of the recommendations that we presented to the committees this morning to establish that database," said Fiddler.

First Nations people living on reserve are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than rest of Canada, according to a federal study done in 2010.

Having a comprehensive database to track lives and property lost in fires will help advise what needs to be done to fix the problem, according to Fiddler.

"They're no different than any other community, they need to emphasize fire prevention activities, smoke detector programs and the appropriate level of fire suppression," said Hay.

The Amber Campaign has come up with 10 points of action they want to see addressed. Some of the immediate recommendations are installing working fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in buildings in NAN communities.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler spoke to to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Tuesday about losses due to house fires in NAN communities. (Dave Rae/CBC)

"That's happening as we speak," said Fiddler.

Several homes, schools and nursing stations have had them installed. Other longer-term recommendation include establishing an independent Fire Marshal Office for First Nation communities to create standards and perform regular inspections.

Fiddler said that the only thing that communities can do when a fire occurs is hope they have enough time to get themselves and their families out safely.

The territorial organization has reached out to municipal fire departments for support with the Amber Campaign including those in Timmins and Sioux Lookout. Officials are looking for support from firefighting organizations as well as the federal and provincial governments to make the campaign a long-term sustainable plan.

"Our number one priority with this campaign is to save lives," said Fiddler.

INAF made no commitments to the Amber Campaign at Tuesday's hearing.