POLITICS

Fires on Manitoba reserves 'high risk' but only $4M given out: internal document

10/30/2014 09:00 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - An internal report from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada estimates it will take a $28-million injection of federal funding to reduce the number of deadly fires on Manitoba reserves, but only a fraction of that amount has been approved.

In an department quarterly report from December 2011, obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information laws, fires on reserves are highlighted as a "high risk."

The report estimates Manitoba reserves need the money for "proactive measures and regional plan to reduce fire loss in the short and medium term." The $28 million is more than the $26 million the federal government spends on fire protection every year on all reserves across the country.

Instead, the report notes only $4 million was budgeted for "short-term plan" in 2012.

"The high rate of fire losses on Manitoba First Nations is the result of several factors including the operation and maintenance of housing stock, training and retaining firefighters, need for fire prevention awareness and the challenges presented to firefighters due to the climate and isolation of remote communities," the quarterly report states.

"Cost estimates exceed the region's financial abilities — no capital dollars — resulting in unfunded funding pressures."

The department declined to provide anyone to answer questions on the recommendation or about fire protection on reserves.

In an emailed statement, spokesman Brock Holowachuk said Manitoba received a one-time payment of $4 million which was "targeted at remote and isolated First Nations, resulting in the purchase of six fire trucks, and construction of three fire halls."

The department is prepared for inquiries about fires on Canadian reserves. It has developed a book of key talking points whenever staff are questioned by the media.

The "Spokesbook: Fire Protection," also obtained through access-to information laws, contains "ready-use media lines when the topic of fire protection arises."

The talking points stress that the federal government provides $26 million annually for fire protection services, but it is up to individual reserves to prioritize their spending.

The booklet also contains a special section with approved comments "in case of fire."

"The loss of life is a great tragedy, especially when the lives of children are lost. Departmental officials will/have reached out to the First Nation to offer our condolences and ensure that the community has the support it needs," a bullet point reads.

"Our thoughts are with all the community members, emergency responders and First Nation leaders who worked so hard to respond to this tragic event and continue to provide much needed support to the community."

Statistics show a First Nations resident is much more likely to die in a house fire on a Manitoba reserve than someone in a municipality.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said it's impossible for band councils to spend large amounts of money on fire protection when they don't have enough money to meet basic needs.

"How do you prioritize when there are challenges with safe drinking water in a community?" he asked. "How do you prioritize when you need 100 homes in the community and people are living 15 to 20 people in a house?

"It's easy to say, but the solutions are much more nuanced than that."

Aboriginal communities are not protected to the same standard as non-aboriginal communities, Nepinak said.

"If more investment could save one life, my feeling has always been make more investment," he said. "You can't put a dollar value on a human life, especially when it's a child in a home that's susceptible to fire."

Ivan Hart, fire safety officer for Keewatin Tribal Council representing 10 Manitoba communities, said the council's funding has been slashed by 75 per cent. While some of the council's reserves have received new firefighting equipment in recent years, members have little training on how to maintain or use it, Hart said.

One reserve's fire truck was damaged after being left out in the winter without being drained, causing the valves to freeze and crack, he said. Many of the volunteer firefighters don't even have CPR training, he added.

Hart and Manitoba's Office of the Fire Commissioner asked the aboriginal affairs department for roughly $200,000 to give basic firefighting training to someone from each of the council's communities, who could then train others on the reserve, but the request was declined.

Fire caused almost $3 million in damage in 2012 in the council's 10 communities

"It's very frustrating. I'm very concerned about the lack of equipment and training," Hart said. "If they don't know how to properly use the equipment, it's not much use to them."

In an emailed statement, Holowachuk said the government already provides "funding for fire protection, including training, directly to First Nations."

A joint report by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Office of the Fire Commissioner suggests one way to prevent future tragedies is to focus on fire prevention rather than trying to fix the shortcomings of fire departments.

Since the vast majority of fatalities happen in house fires, the report says home inspections "have the greatest potential for saving lives." Just checking to ensure all homes on reserve have smoke alarms, safe heating devices and usable exits could prevent future deaths, it suggested.

"Given that some First Nation communities' fire departments lack the infrastructure, staffing and training to reliably respond to fires quickly and effectively, the importance of fire prevention, including fire safety inspections program, cannot be overstated."

Robert Pike, Manitoba's deputy fire commissioner, said the office has started touring its fire education trailer in some reserves. More than 1,000 kids went through the trailer this summer and learned about the importance of smoke detectors and fire safety.

It's a small victory but a good start, Pike said.

"I would rather not need a fire truck because we don't have fires," he said. "In the smaller communities, it would be better to have an education program."