Manitoba First Nations in desperate need of firefighters wait for Harper government to take action

By Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
The Harper government says they are just now analyzing a report that shows over 90 per cent of Manitoba First Nations are ill-prepared to respond to fires despite the fact that a draft report was completed in the spring according to one tribal council.

Speaking on APTN’s Nation to Nation political panel Thursday Conservative MP Chris Warkentin said his government is now pouring over the report that APTN first reported last week.

“It’s just been reported back,” said Warkenton on Nation to Nation which airs tonight. “We continue to look at that report.”

The report was commissioned by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner in June 2011.

Aboriginal Affairs was one of the partners involved.

APTN also obtained a draft copy of the report and was told it was completed in the spring. It’s not clear why it took so long to be finalized as it doesn’t appear any changes were made.

Between January 2012 to September 2012 a program officer from the fire commissioner’s office visited 61 First Nations across the province surveying what plans and equipment they had in place.

The report can be read here for the first time.

A snapshot of the report found of the 61 communities visited, 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 24 per cent had an agreement in writing.

The report found seven communities had a pager system in place to alert people in the event of a fire.

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.

APTN has repeatedly asked the AMC for comment, but so far has not been provided with answers to questions sent in an email to a spokesperson and Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was not available for an interview.

APTN did speak with the fire commissioner’s office.

Deputy commissioner Robert Pike said they weren’t surprised by the reports findings as the severe lack of fire preparedness on First Nations has been known for a long time in Manitoba.

And just now are stakeholders getting together.

“Plans are underway to bring the original steering committee back together in an effort to continue to build stronger relationships, share information and take advantage of opportunities to work towards the common goal of better fire prevention right across Manitoba,” a spokesperson from the fire commissioner’s office said in an email.

The report made several recommendations, including providing short term funding to tribal councils in Manitoba, particularly their fire services officers who typically are charged with providing uncertified fire training and public education.

It’s not clear if any of the recommendations have been put in place or even followed up on.

As APTN reported the Keewatin Tribal Council has 11 remote communities in northern Manitoba and none of them have a certified firefighter.

They applied for about $140,000 in funding from Aboriginal Affairs in the spring but never got a response.

The money would have paid for one member from each of the communities to be trained as a certified firefighter and was supported by the fire commissioner’s office who was going to provide the six-week training.

Ivan Hart, Keewatin’s FSO, then called Aboriginal Affairs in Winnipeg wondering why his request was ignored.

Hart said Darrell Fiel, Aboriginal Affairs manager of capital and housing in Winnipeg, told him the federal government didn’t have any 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.

Hart was told to ask again in the fall.

He did.

Hart said he hasn’t received a response yet.

Meanwhile, people on that community enter the winter months when fires spike.

Between January and July of this year KTC had more than $3 million in damages due to fire.

In 2012, they had $2.8 million in total.

The fire commissioner’s office said “the majority of the recommendations found within the report will require action at either the local community or the federal level with the support of AANDC.”

Warkentin said his government made an “unprecedented” one-time investment of $4.5 million last year into buying equipment and training First Nations to battle fires in Manitoba.

He said the federal government also invests about $3.5 million annually to tribal councils and the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters who train First Nations who are not part of a tribal council in the province.

“We’ll make sure the investments are going where they should be and if there needs to be changes we’ll ensure that first and foremost folks are cared for in their time of need,” he said.

However, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said on Nation to Nation it’s not about reacting after a disaster happens but before fires happen.

The Auditor General of Canada released a report last week that said the majority of First Nations across the country are not prepared for a disaster and that Aboriginal Affairs had no idea if emergency response services were the same on-reserve as off-reserve.

“They don’t have the information so no matter what the government says about what money they are putting in they don’t know,” said NDP MP Jean Crowder on the panel.

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