The Current

NDP MPP criticizes Ford for not calling state of emergency as wildfires burn across Northern Ontario

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa joined First Nations leaders in Northern Ontario who are calling on Premier Doug Ford's provincial government to declare a state of emergency to save their communities from unprecedented wildfires that have so far forced 3,000 people from their homes.

'It's like a different Ontario. It's like a different Canada for us,' says Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa

The fire known as Red Lake 124 is one of many burning in northwestern Ontario. The encroaching fires and poor air quality have so far forced the evacuation of over 3,000 people this summer. (@ONForestFires on Twitter)

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The MPP for one of the regions of northwestern Ontario covered in forest fires says racism is partly to blame for Premier Doug Ford's decision not to call a state of emergency in the area.

"I think, you know, if we were with municipalities, I think he would call it. But because we are First Nations, he will not," NDP MMP for Kiiwetinoong Sol Mamakwa told The Current's guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"It kind of reflects on, you know, we're treated differently. It's like a different Ontario. It's like a different Canada for us. And that's the way it's been, their policy approaches to Indigenous people," he said.

When asked outright by Bresnahan whether the situation came down to racism, Mamakwa replied: "Yes. It exists. I've seen it firsthand."

More evacuation support needed, First Nations say

Indigenous leaders and opposition politicians have been pushing Ford to call a state of emergency for weeks. An emergency order has already been declared in the area.

The order allows the province to invoke such measures as travel or access restrictions within an identified area, according to the Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services agency (AFFES), which is part of the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry.

Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, said Doug Ford's provincial government has treated Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario differently from other parts of the province. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

More than 130 forest fires were burning across northwestern Ontario on Thursday, as Environment Canada issued air quality statements for most of the region because of extreme heat and choking smoke resulting from the fires.

Ontario has seen about 900 wildfires this summer — almost double the annual average. About 3,000 people have so far been evacuated from First Nations in harm's way, including more than 500 residents from Deer Lake First Nation alone.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation said earlier this month that escalating the situation to a state of emergency would allow more support for community evacuations, including the use of aircraft, watercraft and temporary accommodations in other communities.

Ford rebuffed these requests during a visit to Thunder Bay Wednesday, where he met with community leaders and evacuees.

"There's a little confusion what a state of emergency is. It's not going to add any more resources. It's basically the province coming in, taking over everything," Ford said.

"There's already emergency orders put in place. So it's not holding back any resources. We will put all the resources we have. I won't spare a penny."

Ford has refused requests to call a state of emergency to address the hundreds of wildfires burning across the northwestern part of the province. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Grand chief plans to call on Ottawa for help

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler was one of the leaders Ford met during his visit. Fiddler called the meeting "disappointing" on CBC's Power and Politics, and said he now plans to call on the federal government to get the help he says wildfire evacuees aren't getting from the province.

Minister for Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford echoed the premier's stance, adding that the situation is not the same as in British Columbia, where hundreds of fires have also scorched the landscape.

"At this point, the only declaration of a province-wide emergency ... would be to give the province these exceptional powers over municipalities to allocate people. And so far we've not had that problem," he told Power and Politics.

WATCH | Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler on his 'disappointing' meeting with Doug Ford:

Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief to call on federal government for help after 'disappointing' meeting with Premier Ford

2 months ago
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said his meeting with Premier Doug Ford about wildfires in Northern Ontario was "disappointing" and he now plans to call on the federal government to get the help he says wildfire evacuees aren't getting from the province. 7:01

Mathew Hoppe, CEO of the Independent First Nations Alliance, said there's still a need for more support to help quickly evacuate people to safer locations.

"We have active fires, large fires that have no resources being deployed because all the other threats are currently ongoing," he said. "[There are] a lot of good people helping out, but it's just not enough people and resources."

Shortages of firefighting resources

Mamakwa said he saw shortages of water bombers, helicopters and firefighters when he visited a fire centre in the Red Lake region last week.

He recalled a meeting with provincial officials two months ago, when discussions about providing beds for evacuees was raised. He said that work still hasn't been completed, and that it's currently difficult to even determine how many beds are available.

"That sort of work should have been done, you know, a long time ago."

More than 130 forest fires were burning in northwestern Ontario on Thursday morning. (Submitted by Chris Marchand)

Mamakwa said the wildfires in the region aren't the only challenge they're facing, explaining that it is only compounding existing water shortages, mental health problems and housing and infrastructure issues.

"We are in a crisis within a crisis within a crisis, because there are other things happening," he said.

The Current requested an interview with Ford, but did not receive a reply; interviews were also requested with Greg Rickford and Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, both of whom declined.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC Thunder Bay. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Paul MacInnin and Ryan Chatterjee.