Jurisdictional void makes housing on reserve sub-standard, raises risk of fatal fires say experts

‘It always takes a tragedy to set up Band-Aid solutions. We’re looking for long-term reform,’ says NAN deputy grand chief

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Blaine Wiggins says there are many challenges facing fire prevention in First Nations communities but a major one is a lack of standards. Photo: APTN


More money for on-reserve fire safety programs would certainly help communities mitigate the risk of potentially deadly blazes, experts and advocates agree.

But they also warn that simply writing cheques won’t solve long-standing problems around building codes and fire codes in First Nations communities — namely, that there often are none.

“One of the biggest challenges is standards that exist within non-First Nations communities,” said emergency management expert Blaine Wiggins recently on Nation to Nation. “A standard for fire prevention within communities does not exist right now.”

Wiggins is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and, as the executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, works with organizations to address the policy gaps facing First Nations emergency responders.

Fire safety begins at the political level and trickles down to the frontlines, so it’s as much about governance as anything else, Wiggins explained. Firefighters on the ground battling blazes are actually the last line of defence.

In Ontario, the provincial government has passed the Building Code Act and the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, but these laws cease to apply on reserves like Sandy Lake, a fly-in community where three children died in a fire on Jan. 14.

On many First Nations territories, the Indian Act or the First Nations Land Management Act takes over. Under these regimes, it’s up to each First Nation to legislate, adopt and enforce its own building code using whatever power, authority and cash it has.

The result is a patchwork of policies countrywide.

Risk greater in the North

This jurisdictional void is a recipe for disaster when mixed with systemic underfunding, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Bobby Narcisse in a phone interview.

“Fatal house fires are all too common in our communities,” he said. “A chronic lack of firefighting services and the fact that we have sub-standard housing — that’s a deadly combination.”

NAN has about 50,000 constituents in Treaty 5 and Treaty 9 territories in northern Ontario. Of the 49 communities NAN represents, Narcisse said about 34 are fly-in.

That remoteness isolates communities from provincial infrastructure. It makes partnerships with municipalities impossible and raises the cost of living. There are fewer economic opportunities, so communities are more likely to rely on federal cash.

“A dollar is different in Attawapiskat or Sandy Lake than it is in Thunder Bay, Toronto or Ottawa,” said Narcisse. “It still perpetuates that discrimination against our First Nations from both levels of government. It always takes a tragedy to set up Band-Aid solutions. We’re looking for long-term reform.”

One of those unthinkable tragedies struck when three generations of a single family died in a devastating house fire in Pikangikum in 2016. NAN launched the Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign in response, naming the educational initiative after five-month-old Amber Strang who perished in the blaze.

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Bobby Narcisse is Ojibway from the Aroland First Nation and served as NAN director of social services for nearly nine years. Photo courtesy: NAN

Six years later movement from government has been slow.

Indigenous Services Canada’s Ontario branch signed a 10-year bilateral deal with Ontario’s fire marshal in 2018, according to internal records obtained by APTN. Nationally ISC invested $10 million to establish an Indigenous Fire Marshal Office in 2019.

But between 2019 and 2021 the department saw emergency declarations triple among First Nations in Ontario largely due to the pandemic and growing social emergencies like suicide and addiction. Eighty-six per cent of these emergency events already happen in the North.

APTN asked Narcisse how many NAN communities have passed their own building and fire bylaws. He wasn’t sure.

“It’s kind of sad to say that currently to date there’s no regulation,” he replied. “It’s left to the communities to mandate and enforce these codes, and we know for a fact too many of our communities are very sub-standard. They’re third-world conditions.”

Enough funding and bylaws aren’t enough

But even having enough cash, a local fire bylaw, and well-resourced emergency responders won’t make all problems disappear.

As the fire chief and director of emergency services for the Chippewas of Rama, Jeremy Parkin is in an enviable position as far as First Nations fire departments go.

He has sustainable and predictable funding via an operating agreement with Casino Rama about 150 kms north of Toronto, Parkin told APTN. The band council also has bylaws in place governing the appointment of a building inspector and fire prevention officers.

Still, challenges remain.

“It’s that whole jurisdictional issue. Fire services are governed provincially and funded municipally,” said Parkin. “There is no federal oversight. There is nothing at that level that we can really latch onto and use.”

While bylaws are sometimes the only tools communities have, “the problem is there’s no enforcement mechanism,” added Parkin.

Communities can end up with “a case of the fox looking after the hen,” which is how project manager John Kiedrowski described on-reserve construction and renovation standards in 2017 House of Commons committee testimony.

Without support from any provincial, federal or Indigenous government agency, band councils can end up simultaneously being the owner, builder, regulator and inspector of construction projects.

In that case, the pressure to build fast risks conflicting with the duty to build right. The danger, Kiedrowski testified, is that expediency will win.

“What you have is homes being built but not necessarily meeting building codes or fire codes, especially on renovations,” he explained. “That’s really where the death traps are, and it’s not being done.”

Non-profit organizations like the First Nations National Building Officers Association, on whose behalf Kiedrowski addressed committee, have emerged to try and help, but they’re still not enough.

Problems well documented

The committee’s 2018 report, titled From the Ashes: Reimagining Fire Safety and Emergency Management in Indigenous Communities, revealed Canada has been chronically underfunding emergency response programs including fire safety for many years.

Ottawa has known about this since at least 2013 when an auditor general review found Aboriginal Affairs had budgeted a paltry $19 million for the program annually.

The Harper government more than tripled the program’s budget next year, and cash for the program doubled again after Trudeau delivered his first budget in 2016.

But there was still far less cash available than communities actually needed, and the department continued to exceed its budget by tens of millions per year.

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First Nations are often on the frontlines when catastrophic wildfires hit, like the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, seen here, which was the costliest extreme weather event in Canadian history. Photo: The Canadian Press

The Ontario coroner picked up the thread in a 2021 report that found Ottawa provided an annual average of $47,700 for fire safety on reserves per First Nation between 2008 and 2017.

First Nations kids under 10 are 86 times more likely to perish in fires than non-First Nations kids, the coroner’s probe found. To explain this inequality, the coroner latched onto the concept of “jurisdictional neglect.”

The concept refers to situations where provincial and federal governments refuse to co-operate delivering services to First Nations communities. The coroner identified building codes as one of many areas where this neglect occurs. It often leaves First Nations without equal access to housing, clean water, health care, and social supports.

It often also lands Canada in court for allegedly running a two-tiered service delivery system that discriminates against people with Indian status.

Narcisse said now’s the time to start the discussion about legislative solutions.

“Get rid of the discrimination,” he urged. “Provide equitable fire prevention services and protection under a regional, co-developed fire law.”

Parkin agreed.

“To me that’s what fire legislation would look like is making sure communities have the resources to provide community fire safety,” he said. “There is a need for something just to address that governance gap.”

Online Journalist / Ottawa

Brett is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in Ontario. He grew up in Ottawa where he obtained an English degree from Carleton University. Brett is a creative writer, poet, and journalist. He joined the Ottawa bureau for APTN News in December 2019 as a digital reporter.