‘It’s a start:’ Ontario Indigenous firefighters note some progress in First Nations fire safety

Catastrophic 2016 house fire in Pikangikum First Nation killed 9, drew calls for improvement

The Ontario Native Firefighters Society says partnerships with Ottawa are ‘a work in progress’ when it comes to bettering fire safety in Indigenous communities. (Ontario Native Firefighters Society / Facebook)

The organization representing Indigenous firefighters across Ontario says there’s been more government action in the past couple of years to help improve fire safety in First Nations communities but a lot of work still needs to be done.

“There’s been some minor changes, there’s been some ongoing partnerships and training,” said Steve Nolan, the vice-president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society, adding that the partnerships forged with federal officials over the past couple of years are “a work in progress.”

Nolan is also the fire chief in Garden River First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“Our biggest thing is education: smoke alarms, [carbon monoxide detectors] and fire extinguishers, that has to be improved on,” Nolan said. “The other thing is ongoing training for the firefighters themselves, that is now a work in progress.”

The training is being done through a special program for First Nations firefighters, Nolan said, adding that the second set of classes wrapped up earlier this year, graduating 28 people. A third session is planned for next fall, Nolan said, but the program’s future beyond that is uncertain, as funding applications with Ottawa still have to be renewed.

It’s been just over two years since a deadly house fire in Pikangikum First Nation killed nine people in 2016, including a five-month-old girl. The catastrophic blaze amplified calls for improvements to fire prevention and suppression in First Nations communities.

Nine people died in a house fire in Pikangikum in 2016, drawing renewed calls for improved fire safety in Indigenous communities. (Kyle Peters/Canadian Press)

Pikangikum is located more than 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. The community’s fire truck was not able to respond to the 2016 fire because local roads were filled with mud and clay due to spring weather.

Nolan said communication with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada officials has improved since 2016.

“At least now they’re at the table and they’re listening to our concerns and they’re putting money forth to help improve those services,” he said. “It will improve, however we’re a long way from where we need to be, but it’s a start.”

Some progress was also noted by Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the territorial organization that includes 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, including Pikangikum.

In a written release, NAN pointed to steps in progress under Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign — named after Amber Strang, the youngest victim of the 2016 Pikangikum fire — including the provision of and education around smoke detectors, improvements to fire education in schools and a program to facilitate replacing wood burning systems in homes in six NAN communities.

In advocating for improvements to fire safety, Nishnawbe Aski Nation has also pointed to other fatal fires in Nibinamik, Wunnumin Lake, and Mishkeegogamang First Nations over the past several years. The province’s chief coroner has said nearly 60 people have died in house fires in Indigenous communities in Ontario over the span of a decade.

Firefighters pushing for legislative changes

Long-term improvements need to be made to legislation to bring First Nations fire safety in line with other communities, Nolan said.

“It’s so uneven,” he said. “You have several First Nations within the province that have very little or [nothing] in regards to fire protection.”

“Some First Nations have a third-party agreement with the nearest town or municipality but a lot of them don’t, they’re so remote that how do you get the programs and services they need?”

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