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Water Today Title December 4, 2020

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First Nation


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BY Cori Marshall

WaterToday has been looking into the fire safety situation in First Nations communities. We now turn our attention to the community of the Atikamekw d'Opticiwan, which is located more than 600 km north of Montréal in the province of Québec.

The community, which is approximately a 10-hour drive from the metropolis had a population of just over 2000, according to the 2011 census data. There were 400 total households in the community, of which 24% were in need of major repair.

We had the opportunity to communicate with Martin Awashish the Service Incendie Opitciwan, the community's fire service.

Awashish told us that "there is a fire station in [the] community, and we have a fire truck at our disposal." He said that they have some gear, such as fire hoses to deal with a fire incident adding "last year the fire service dealt with 67 output of all kinds."

When asked about the most urgent needs of the fire service, Awashish began saying "we have a very small team to respond to emergencies," adding the "community has 8 firefighters for a growing population." Since the 2011 census, the population is approximately 3000.

"The priority of the Service Incendie Opitciwan is the training of a qualified fire suppression workforce, Awashish said. Of the 8 firefighters in the community 4 are trained in the first level recognized by the federal government, the others are not. Awashish asserted "that the service will need more staff," though they are limited in their ability to increase their workforce "due to inadequate funding from the federal government."

    "In an ideal world, a new fire station would be beneficial for our community and to be properly equipped in fire safety."

    Martin Awashish, Service Incendie Opitciwan

The community needs "at least 20 to 30 firefighters trained with the standards require to practice in a fire department." Awashish underlined that "we must not forget this sector of activity is an essential service to the public safety of the community, and the service must respond 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year." The fire service sometimes arrives with 2 to 4 firefighters and is restrained in in operations because "firefighters take holidays on weekends for example, or any other imponderable that is out of our control," Awashish said. He underlined that the "community is located far from urban centres, [there is] no reinforcement inside of a 3-hour drive."
    "The service is weakened and precarious in these circumstances, and my resources are often exhausted in the face of their obligations to be available at all times and being present in the community."

    Martin Awashish, Service Incendie Opitciwan

Awaish told WaterToday that "the basic budget provided by the federal government is approximately $80,000 annually, which is clearly insufficient." The Band Council is forced to add additional funds to the inter-service budget, that "is only to cover the turnover of the [fire] service."

    "We do not necessarily have funding to do the training, knowing that the costs related to training a firefighter are close to $ 20,000, and our scope is limited in relation to the training of skilled labor due to underfunding."

    Martin Awashish, Service Incendie Opitciwan

For training "the community depends on the standards established by the provincial government," and those established at the federal level. Awashish explained that "those trained in the Firefighter 1 program, provided by the école nationale des pompiers du Québec, can practice in a fire department with a population of fewer than 25 thousand inhabitants." There is no strict training program in the community itself.

Some of the limited funding that the community does receive is directed to prevention. Awashish said that "our fields of action are limited, it would be beneficial for the community to have a real organizational and hierarchical structure to provide a good education for the population in terms of prevention."

Awashish underlined that "the community has no organizational structure to better weave and establish the culture of fire prevention." Despite the financial and structural limitations "the community conducts fire drills in its school buildings annually, and in its other institutions and services." The fire service believes "that the best weapon against fires is prevention in all its forms."

As was mentioned the community, and fire service view the amount of federal funding allocated for fire safety and suppression to be inadequate. Awashish explained that "the [funding] agreements are renewed annually with a percentage indexation, which is minimal." Awashish asserted that the government of Canada must demonstrate its good faith in order to enhance the fire safety agreement." The community has brought their concerns and demands to the federal government in the past, and is now "hoping and relying on the creation of the Office of the Indigenous Fire Marshal to ensure some relief and have the most adequate funding at its true value to the community."

Opitciwan "has developed an emergency measures plan with hazards that have been identified and targeted in the face of an emergency situation," Awashish told WaterToday. He added that "the fire sector had also identified its priorities and objectives, and were unable to meet them due to underfunding."

As part of the department's obligations, they oversee "the annual inspection of portable fire extinguishers and fixed extinguishing systems in all buildings."

Awashish intimated that "the community is considerably behind the current [fire safety] laws and standards." The community is aiming "to reach the standards of a few years ago," he added. From the point of view of the community "the government must demonstrate its interest in funding fire safety in a way that is fair and equitable for all," Awashish said.

The fire safety situation in Opitciwan is not ideal, dealing with the reality of approximately 375 inhabitants per firefighter. Despite the lack of funding and delays in meeting established standards Awashish said that "the community is not victimizing itself, but the reality is true of what was raised here."


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