By Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
About two years after a fire claimed the lives of three people in a remote northern Manitoba First Nation in 2011 Aboriginal Affairs turned down a funding request to train a member of the community to become a certified firefighter according to the Keewatin Tribal Council.
And to this day none of the 11 communities under the watch and care of KTC have certified firefighters.
This worries Ivan Hart, the KTC fire prevention officer in charge of the communities, as temperatures turn freezing and fires become the norm.
Hart said he applied for about $140,000 in funding from Aboriginal Affairs in the spring to train one member from each community to become certified firefighters.
His detailed written proposals never got a response before the deadline to begin training.
Hart said he then called Darrell Fiel, Aboriginal Affairs manager of capital and housing in Winnipeg, to find out if the federal government was going fund what he says was a small amount of money to save lives.
“He (Fiel) said there was no money. I was obviously disappointed,” said Hart who, alone, tries to train members of the communities on fire prevention and firefighting and does so on a budget of about $60,000 annually, that includes his salary.
Of the 11 communities, seven has “fire chiefs” but they aren’t certified.
That includes God’s Lake Narrows First Nation.
Demus James, 73, Kayleigh Okemow, 3, and Throne Kirkness, 2, died in a fire March 14, 2011 on God’s Lake.
An inquest has been called into their deaths to determine what can be learned and potentially save lives in the future.
The same members of the inquest are looking at a separate fire at St. Thersea Point First Nation where Errabella Angel Harper, an infant, died in a fire Jan. 16, 2011.
The St. Theresa inquest is set for March 17-19, while the God’s Lake inquest began this past summer and continues in March as well.
Hart testified at the God’s Lake inquest about being turned down for funding by Aboriginal Affairs.
He also told the inquest that between January and June of this year there was more than $3 million in damages due to fires, but, luckily, no fatalities, in the KTC communities.
“I go into the communities whenever I can and I give them one week training. It’s not a certified course, but at least they have something, right?” said Hart. “They do what they can with what they have. Do they have a fire truck? Do they have the proper equipment? The majority of the communities don’t.”
Seven of the communities have fire trucks and fire chiefs trained by Hart and APTN asked him what happens if there is a fire at one of the communities that doesn’t have either.
“Hopefully, everybody gets out of the house,” he said. “Often there is nothing they can do. That’s the reality of it. The ones that do have a fire truck and firefighters in the community there is also a communication problem.”
They either run to houses to get help or use telephones.
It turns out KTC isn’t alone.
Many Manitoba First Nations struggle to battle fires according to a 2012 report obtained by APTN.
Between January 2012 to September 2012 a program officer from Manitoba’s Office of the Fire Commissioner visited 61 First Nations across the province surveying what plans and equipment they had in place.
The results are startling.
Of the 61 communities, four had a formalized protection plan in place. Seven had fire bylaws and 12 had a fire protection officer.
Thirty-eight First Nations said they relied on other communities to provide assistance, although just 24 per cent had an agreement in writing.
The report found only seven communities had a pager system in place in the event of a fire to alert people.
Some said they sent text messages.
Other firefighting equipment was scarce as well.
Nine communities said they had sufficient amount of fire hose and 14 said they had an adequate supply of ladders, axes and generators.
While, 47 communities said they had fire hydrants, 45 used lakes, 37 ran to rivers, 22 depended on ponds and 21 had water tankers.
In the case of the God’s Lake fatal fire community members can be seen throwing snow in the engulfed home as reported in this APTN story.
“Many fire departments were not aware of what the community’s fire protection budget was,” the report says. “Although all communities stated that they were part of an association that provides fire support, most were unable to specify the nature of the support that was available.”
Based on the report’s findings it was determined most of the First Nations in Manitoba were not in a position to respond to a fire.
“It was also noted that First Nation fire department members generally are less likely to have received formal training than their municipal counterparts,” the report says.
That’s interesting because the Auditor General of Canada released a report in Ottawa this week saying Aboriginal Affairs officials said they didn’t know if First Nations across Canada received the same level of service in the event of an emergency like a fires or floods.
Aboriginal Affairs was a partner in the report and would have had knowledge of its findings as a draft report was finished by March of this year. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was also a partner.
The Auditor General’s report concluded the majority of First Nations across Canada are ill-equipped to handle emergencies.
The feds depend on provinces to provide emergency care for First Nations but only four provinces have emergency management plans in place with Ottawa, a system that helps provinces recover costs.
Manitoba is one of the provinces that do not.
Aboriginal Affairs allocates about $19 million annually to support the emergency management program and the Auditor General found this was not sufficient.
As a result, Aboriginal Affairs dips in to capital funding to cover shortfalls in the program and that means other programs are either delayed or canceled.
Many times First Nations were left to fend for themselves.
As for Hart, he was told by Aboriginal Affairs to put a request in this fall to see if the funding would be approved.
He emailed Fiel this week because “I wanted something in writing this time.”
Hart said he hasn’t heard back yet.
APTN called Fiel Thursday and he said he needed to do a “little research” and would get back to APTN.
APTN asked the AMC to provide Grand Chief Derek Nepinak for an interview on fire safety but was told Nepinak was unavailable for interviews this week.
Robert Pike, deputy commissioner of Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner, said when they did the survey they had a good idea of what they were going to find and weren’t surprised by the findings.
Pike said other non-First Nation communities face similar challenges across Manitoba as well.
Pike said it’s important to drive home fire prevention and that’s what his office does.
And with the cold winter months ahead that means not having extension chords under carpets, keeping an eye on woodstoves and being careful cooking with oil.
He said smoking in homes is also a problem and people need to be more careful.
“It’s Christmastime so people are going to be using candles in their homes and they are going to be smoking in their homes and smoking is the one of the biggest causes of fires,” said Pike.
The fire commissioner’s office works with tribal councils to assist in fire prevention but doesn’t provide funding. The office was behind Hart’s proposal to train members of the KTC communities but couldn’t because the federal government didn’t supply the funding.