Firefighters hopeful Indigenous Affairs shakeup will lead to better fire safety measures on reserves
Firefighters hopeful Indigenous Affairs shakeup will lead to better fire safety measures on reserves
August 31, 2017
The Toronto Star
Article by: Jesse Winter
 
“We have an ambitious plan to have smoke detectors in every First Nation home in Ontario,” Six Nations Fire Chief Matthew Miller said.  (JESSE WINTER/TORONTO STAR) 
 
Indigenous firefighting experts are hopeful that the federal government’s recent cabinet shuffle will help improve fire safety and prevention on reserves.
 
“I don’t fear change. I fear increased levels of bureaucracy. Hopefully that’s not the direction we’re going in,” said Six Nations fire Chief Matthew Miller, who is also president of the Ontario Native Fire Fighters Society.
 
“Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic,” Miller said.
 
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a shakeup at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), splitting the department in two and handing responsibility for the delivery of services for Indigenous people to former federal health minister Jane Philpott.
 
Minister Carolyn Bennett, who had previously been responsible for the sprawling INAC department, will now lead the government’s effort to replace the Indian Act and improve Crown-Indigenous relations.
 
In March, Bennett committed the government to creating new legislation that applies a basic fire and building code on reserves, and putting in place a national Indigenous fire marshal’s office to oversee the resumption of fire-related data collection on reserves, something the government had abandoned altogether in 2010.
 
Those promises came on the heels of a Star investigation that found at least 175 people have died in house fires in Indigenous communities since the federal government stopped tracking the death toll. At least 25 of the dead are children.
 
Now Philpott’s department will be responsible for following through on Bennett’s promises, something she and her staff take seriously, according to a statement from her office.
 
“Minister Philpott is committed to continuing the work that Minister Bennett has advanced over the past two years, including work on the fire safety file,” the statement said.
 
“Over the coming days and weeks she looks forward to receiving detailed briefings in her new roles as Indigenous Services minister,” Philpott’s office said.
 
Miller said he sees the splitting of Indigenous Affairs into two departments as a positive step towards solving not just the house fires crisis, but many of the larger issues plaguing Canada’s Indigenous communities.
 
“There’s been a lot of reconciliation rhetoric thrown around” by this government, Miller said. “This is potentially the first time I’ve seen a significant move in that direction.”
 
Blaine Wiggins, director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, agrees with him.
 
Having Philpott handle service delivery while Bennett tackles the self-government negotiations and the eventual dismantling of the Indian Act is a smart move, he said.
 
“We feel that the recent announcement will not hinder our projected plans and outcomes but may in fact expedite them,” Wiggins said.
 
Minister Bennett’s office said in a statement that work on the file has been progressing well over the summer. The working group is currently trying to hash out costing and timelines for the new legislation and the fire marshal’s office. That work will continue through the fall and winter, Bennett’s office said.
 
Miller said the months since Bennett’s promises have seen significant progress, but there have been some hiccups along the way.
 
The federal government has struck a working group on the issue that includes the Aboriginal Firefighters Association, the Ontario Native Fire Fighters Society and the Assembly of First Nations.
 
Earlier this summer, Indigenous Affairs’ team leader on that working group left for another position, Miller said, which meant time was lost bringing the replacement up to speed.
 
That’s left Miller also worried about the time it may take to get a whole new department caught up.
 
With fall around the corner, many Indigenous communities will soon have to start relying on the dangerous wood stoves, stoves that are known to cause many fatal house fires.
 
In an attempt to head that off, Miller and the Ontario Native Firefighter’s Society has spent the summer trying to get as many smoke alarms installed in as many First Nations homes as possible.
 
“We have an ambitious plan to have smoke detectors in every First Nation home in Ontario,” he said.
 
Miller said he doesn’t yet have updated statistics on how many smoke detectors got installed over the summer, but anecdotally he said the work has so far gone well.
 
“We’ve been working to support the Be Fire Safe program, which exists because of the federal partnership,” Miller said. “Coming into the tail end of August, we’re doing another push. It’s a lot of work.”