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'The system is broken,' Ontario First Nations firefighters say of fire protection in Indigenous communities

The head of an Ontario organization representing firefighters in Indigenous communities says the current system that dictates how fire protection is handled in First Nations is woefully inadequate and needs to be rebuilt.

Regulations, funding, training requires a complete overhaul says Ontario Native Firefighters Society

Matthew Miller is the fire chief for the Six Nations Of The Grand River and the president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society. (Courtesy of Six Nations)

The head of an Ontario organization representing firefighters in Indigenous communities says the current system that dictates how fire protection is handled in First Nations is woefully inadequate and needs to be rebuilt.

Matthew Miller, the president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society, said the fire-related deaths in Indigenous communities are "frustrating and heartbreaking," and the fact that people keep dying in house fires "angers" him.

"First Nations fire protection in Ontario and right across Canada, the system is broken," said Miller, who is also the fire chief for the Six Nations Of The Grand River, southwest of Hamilton. "The system requires complete overall reform; that's the biggest thing that needs to occur."

"The formula-based funding approach that's been in place for three decades, four decades, is not working."

Miller's comments come in the wake of a deadly early morning fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as KI or Big Trout Lake, on May 2 that killed five people — four of them children under the age of 13. The community's chief, Donny Morris, said that a lack of adequate firefighting equipment, including hydrants with enough water pressure, hampered efforts to put out the blaze.

The fire in KI is the latest to claim multiple lives from a northern Ontario First Nation. A 2016 fire in Pikangikum killed nine, including two children and a baby, while fires in recent years in Mishkeegogamang and Wunnumin Lake also had tragic outcomes.

A 2010 federal report found that First Nations residents are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than the rest of the Canadian population.

A three-bedroom house in Pikangikum First Nation burned to the ground in 2016. Nine people were killed. (Kyle Peters)

Part of the problem, Miller said, is that information on the level of fire protection in a given community often is not accurate. For example, he said his organization has completed fire assessments in a number of First Nations and what they found often doesn't line up with federal statistics.

"We would have a list of the First Nation and what they were listed as in the federal database — whether or not they have fire protection — and KI was typical of many of the First Nations that we went to ... they were listed as having fire protection but when we arrived in the community, they did not have fire protection," he said.

"By that I mean ... they may have received a fire truck in the past but unfortunately, an organized fire service was unable to be able to be established."

Miller added they are working with Indigenous Services Canada to update the database, calling it a "significant partnership."

Miller said there are no regulations or legislation governing fire protection in Indigenous communities, unlike that for municipalities. Furthermore, while cities and towns have specialized risk assessments in place and plans to cover them, he said there's no such thing for First Nations.

"When you treat every First Nation exactly the same way, with a formula, you're setting yourself up for failure," he said. "Every First Nation is unique and they have their own issues."

"A municipality knows their risk because they have a community risk assessment done, they have the data to back up the service level they require for their protection of their community, but none of that exists for First Nations across Canada."

Miller said the overhaul that is needed is a big job, but "nothing's really in place anyway," adding that a strategic plan, sponsored by Indigenous Services Canada and endorsed by the Chiefs of Ontario, has been drafted but it needs to be put "in front of some people that can actually make some decisions and start to take those initial steps."

While some communities do have "adequate" protection, that's not the case in nearly enough First Nations, he said, adding that, generally, the more remote a community is, the less protected they are and that often comes down to cost.

"When you're in a highly populated area ... you pretty much have access to every vendor that you would need to do servicing on equipment or access to equipment, or even for training capabilities," he said.

"When you get into a remote, fly-in community, the cost alone to have someone come and service your vehicle is exponentially increased."