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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Updated 2016/4/27
First Nations Infrastructure - Part 1


In November 2103, some 90 Attawapiskat residents had to be evacuated after a fire broke out in the makeshift living shelter where they had been moved after a breakdown in the sewage system. The fire appeared to have been caused by a candle used for lighting after a storm knocked out power in the community.

While there were no casualties in Attawapiskat, many other First Nations communities have not been so spared. In recent years, fires in communities across the country have caused many deaths, mostly among the very young and the elderly. Just a month ago, 9 people, including a baby and 2 young children died in a house fire in Pikangikum. The victims, three generations of the same family, all died in the same house.

According to a Statistics Canada National Household Survey, more than one-quarter (27%) of First Nations people living on reserve were living in crowded conditions in 2011, about 7 times the proportion of non-Aboriginal people nationally.

"Fires on reserves typically cause multiple fatalities due to overcrowding " says Blaine Wiggins, Executive Director, Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC). "There is no housing code in many reserves. If houses were built to code we would not be seeing the rates of fatal incidents we are seeing now.”

First Nations Drum reports that after two more toddlers were lost to a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan due to a dispute over unpaid bills with a nearby non-Aboriginal community, Eric Sylvestre, head of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council representing First Nations of the area, ordered an inventory of fire services on the reserves of his group. It's time for action, Sylvestre says, not "to argue about funding and placing blame."

Wiggins is convinced however that the focus should be on fire prevention, not fire suppression. “Whether or not there was a working fire truck on reserve is often irrelevant, he says. "With the housing conditions in First Nations communities and the lack of fire awareness within the community, a fire will rage through a house in a matter of minutes.”

Right now neither the national nor provincial building codes can be enforced in First Nations communities. While a small minority of communities have enacted building codes, adopted their own housing and fire safety bylaws and begun to enforce inspections, many other First Nations do not see this as their role. John Kiedrowski of the First Nations National Building Officers Association (FNNBOA) reported to the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples that, based on their review of bylaws submitted by First Nations to the federal government, only 20 communities have adopted bylaws to ensure that their homes are being built to National Building Code standards.

The absence of a regulatory framework is also an impediment to improving fire prevention in indigenous communities. While both AFAC’ s Blaine Wiggins and FNNBOA’s president Keith Maracle deplored the lack of funding for inspection and protection, they also acknowledged that without regulations, fire marshals on reserve could advise but not enforce. “There has traditionally been a funding gap when it comes to fire inspection and prevention,” says Wiggins. "However, Inac's revised policy focuses on the challenges of fire prevention rather than fire suppression, through better fire code, awareness, training, capacity building and legislation.”

Investigating fire incidents is a key component of prevention. If you know what caused the fire you can prevent it. In most aboriginal reserves, there is no robust reporting system. “ Most of the reporting to INAC is of a statistical nature, related to the numbers of incidents and so on. There is no post-fire in depth investigative reporting," says Maracle.

"There should be building inspector in each community,” he says. But there is insufficient funding for training them. "Just a flight out to remote communities is over budget in the current funding rates. But I hear that the new INAC budget will allocate $15 to $25 million for training”.

In the meantime, FNNBOA has initiated a Teleinspection pilot-project for First Nations Remote communities. The program uses electronic information and telecommunication to support building code compliance. Builders are asked to provide photographs and other information electronically for review by a certified First Nations Building Officer in another part of Canada. These images are reviewed to ensure that each stage of construction meets building code requirements.

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Water Today sent questions to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) regarding fire prevention In an April 4th reply email INAC states its intention to engage in :
    "a renewed, respectful, and inclusive nation-to-nation process,and working with First Nation communities to determine service needs and to develop strategies to prevent fire-related deaths.

    The Government recognizes that a greater focus on fire prevention is key to keeping people and communities safe from fire. This is not just about raising awareness of the importance of smoke alarms and fire safety, but also about increased investments in First Nation housing and ensuring that homes on reserve meet applicable building codes and regulations.

    To address urgent housing needs on reserve, Budget 2016 proposes to provide $554.3 million over two years beginning in 2016–17. The proposed investments are a first step. The Government will be working with First Nations communities over the coming year to develop an effective long-term approach to supporting the construction and maintenance of an adequate supply of housing on reserve as part of a broader National Housing Framework.

    Budget 2016 also proposes to provide an additional $255 million over two years starting in 2016–17 to the First Nations Infrastructure Fund to support investments in a range of complementary infrastructure such as roads and bridges, energy systems, broadband connectivity, physical infrastructure to mitigate the effects of natural disasters and fire protection services. These investments will help communities as they develop and grow.

    Currently, INAC is in the process of renewing the 2010-2015 strategy in collaboration with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada. Discussions have outlined the need for continued work in the area of fire prevention programming, partnership building, and improving follow-up on fire-related deficiencies identified during asset."

In a statement released today (2016/4/26), Minister Carolyn Bennett reiterated her commitment to work at improving the quality of life of Indigenous communities and confirmed the infrastructure funding amount stated above while increasing the housing amount from $554.3 to $732 million.

    $1.8 billion over five years to support clean drinking water and the treatment of wastewater on reserve;
    $969.4 million over five years for First Nation education facilities;
    $732 million over two years to address housing needs on reserve and in Inuit and northern communities;
    $255 million over two years for other First Nation community infrastructure – including roads, bridges, energy systems, connectivity, disaster mitigation and fire protection;
    $409 million over five years to improve waste management on reserve;
    $270.2 million over five years to expand and enhance health facilities in First Nations communities;
    $29.4 million over one year for repairs and renovations of Indigenous early learning and child care facilities;
    $76.9 million over two years to support the construction of cultural and recreational facilities on reserve; and
    $10.4 million over three years for renovations and the construction of new shelters for victims of family violence in First Nations communities.

Related info

Interim Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - February 2105

On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change
Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - June 2015

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