‘We’re going to continue to lose lives’ if recommendations not acted on says First Nations fire expert

It has already been a deadly year for house fires on First Nations. In the span of one month, nine people, mostly children, died in house fires on three different First Nations in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba.

“We’re going to continue to lose lives, it’s just that simple. We need to move away from rhetoric and we need a solid plan,” says Blaine Wiggins, the executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada.

A number of reports on deadly house fires on First Nations have been conducted by various levels of governments over the years, including the federal government’s Joint First Nations Fire Protection Strategy.

The strategy aimed to promote “initiatives that focus on fire prevention in order to support First Nations communities on reserve in reducing the risk of fire-related deaths and injuries.”

While there have been many recommendations over the years, few have been implemented.

“We need capacity, we need training,” says Wiggins on the latest episode of Face to Face.

The AFAC has started a National Indigenous Fire Safety Council Project to create a national approach to fire safety in Indigenous communities.

Currently, there is no national fire protection act that mandates fire safety standards or enforcement and houses and capital infrastructure are not subject to a national building code inspection process.

A report by the Chief Coroner of Ontario, released in 2021 found 86 per cent of fatal fires in First Nations communities occurred in homes or structures with either no or non-operational smoke alarms.

“Two very simple fixes that would address moving forward is all First Nations homes be built with hardwired smoke alarms, smoke detectors and that they’re sprinklers and that would solve a huge amount of problems moving forward versus us trying to keep band-aiding that solution,” says Wiggins.

While it is said that deadly house fires on First Nations are all too common, the reality says Wiggins, is the statistics just don’t exist. Collecting that data is another goal of the NIFSC project. Wiggins says a national reporting system has been created to help prevent future fires from happening by analyzing the root causes.

Housing conditions on First Nations play a major role in those root causes. Overcrowding and a lack of maintenance and regular inspections all play into the risk. In 2016, Statistics Canada found more than 40 percent of First Nations people living on-reserve were living in a dwelling in need of major repairs.

Wiggins says funding is another major issue.

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That same Ontario coroner’s report found between 2008 and 2017, Indigenous Services Canada provided only $29 million annually for fire protection to First Nations communities. That amounts to less than $48,000 per First Nation.

“Fire department funding for those who have fire departments are flexible funding,” says Wiggins.

“If a community has a greater need, as many do on housing or other infrastructure then those dollars won’t necessarily go to the fire department. So, that’s one of the things we’re encouraging that fire department funding, public safety funding be moved to comprehensive where it has to be used for that,” says Wiggins.

For many years, the focus has been on fire suppression says Wiggins and not so much on prevention and “that’s where we’re going to make the difference.”

Wiggins says the pandemic has derailed some of the work being done to improve fire safety but add they continue to push the file forward with the Minister.

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