Ottawa stopped counting fires on First Nation reserves in 2010

The federal government no longer keeps track of how many fires occur on First Nation reserves, raising the question of how officials determine where to target funds for fire fighting and prevention.

Federal government didn't want to 'burden' reserves with having to report numbers

Nine people died in a house fire on Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario in March 2016. The federal government stopped tracking the number of fires on reserves in 2010. (Kyle Peters/The Canadian Press)

The federal government stopped keeping track of how many fires occur on First Nation reserves six years ago, raising questions about how officials determine where to target funds for firefighting and prevention.

The information came in response to a written question submitted by Conservative MP and former firefighter John Brassard, who wanted to know more about the tragic deaths of nine people in a house fire last March on Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Brassard submitted written questions to the government, known as order paper questions, asking for the number of fires that occurred on First Nations reserves over the past decade. He got his answer this week — but only up to 2010.

"In 2010, a decision was taken to stop collecting data of fire incidents on reserve in order to reduce the reporting burden on First Nations," read the answer from Indigenous Affairs.

That means Ottawa has no idea how many fires have occurred over the past six years and whether any of the measures outlined in the government's First Nations fire protection strategy are making any difference.

"To me, it's critically important to have the statistics in order to make sure you know the investments being made are into the right area," said Brassard in an interview with CBC News. "And I think we need to see those numbers on a continual basis to make sure that proper decisions are made in the areas of prevention, education and, ultimately, suppression."

Conservative MP John Brassard says statistics on fires are critically important to make decisions on how to make the correct investments in firefighting. (CBC)

Brassard also asked about First Nations' access to firefighting equipment and resources and about agreements with neighbouring municipalities. The government responded by saying First Nations were responsible for specific decisions regarding their fire protection services.

While the decision to stop collecting the data was made under the previous Conservative government, the Liberals have shown no indication of reversing it. Instead, the Department of Indigenous affairs is working with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada to come up with a new way to "address the fire data gap."

But that is going to take some time, according to Blaine Wiggins, volunteer executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association. In addition to figuring out a new reporting mechanism, legislation might be necessary to ensure it's not merely voluntary for First Nations to report numbers.

Wiggins said the data that used to be collected wasn't reliable and likely underrepresented the scale of the problem. But he concedes that stopping the data collection altogether does present problems.

"We need to know where to focus our prevention activities," he said, adding that without numbers the association will rely on looking at high-profile incidents and other research to help them target their efforts.

Money for fire prevention and education has been found to be more effective than just funding firefighter training, equipment, trucks and fire stations, Wiggins said.

But he added that measuring the impact of any additional resources is difficult without a baseline.

Fire prevention campaign

Meanwhile, some First Nations are moving ahead with attempts to improve the situation, regardless of what numbers are or are not being collected.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents the interests of northern Ontario First Nations, launched Amber's Fire Safety Campaign, named after the youngest victim, just five months old, of the March fire in Pikangikum. The goal is to outfit all houses with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, improve the safety of wood-burning stoves and ensure reserves get fire hydrants tied to their water distribution systems.

Alvin Fiddler, Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief, said the organization has reached out to neighbouring municipal fire departments, the province and the federal government for help with its plan. Fiddler said they hope Ottawa steps up.

"Especially after what happened to the young girl this campaign is named after, I think we need to do more to protect our families and our children so that we don't lose any more," Fiddler told CBC News.

Fiddler said northern Ontario reserves have been keeping track of the number of fires in the region and would be happy to share the data with Ottawa.