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New fire marshal’s office will aim to prevent fatal fires in Indigenous communities

Homes hollowed out by fire have become an all-too-common sight in Indigenous communities across the country, prompting a plan to create a national Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office to fix glaring gaps in fire prevention programs across Canada. 

Three people died in a fire in a home on Oxford House First Nation in Manitoba in 2015. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Homes hollowed out by fire have become an all-too-common sight in Indigenous communities across the country, prompting a plan to create a national Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office to fix glaring gaps in fire prevention programs across Canada. 

“Fire deaths on reserve [are] 10 times the mainstream average and that’s just unacceptable,” said Arnold Lazare, a member of the Kahnawake fire brigade south of Montreal and the project lead for the Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office. 

“What people would like — and they’ve been very clear — they want us to do action on what’s causing people to die.”  

Just last month, a family of five died in a house fire in a First Nation in northwestern Ontario. 

The federal government has no current data on the number of fatal fires in Indigenous communities. It stopped collecting data regarding on-reserve fires in 2010, according to a report of the standing committee on Indigenous and Northern affairs that was released in June 2018. 

Arnold Lazare is the project lead for the Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office. (Submitted by Arnold Lazare)

There is no national fire prevention act for Indigenous communities, meaning there is no standardized process to make sure buildings meet any kind of fire safety requirements, said Blaine Wiggins, executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada. 

He said some Indigenous communities have well-established rules around fire prevention while others have almost none, and there is no uniform set of guiding principles.   

In non-Indigenous communities, fire prevention falls to the provinces to administer through the office of a fire marshal or fire commissioner. Their offices are usually also responsible for fire and building safety. 

But most Indigenous communities are under federal jurisdiction and fall outside the authority of provincial fire marshals. 

Major safety differences

That has led to major differences in fire safety between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities.  

“One example of that is currently all houses now are required to have some type of smoke alarm, some detection system, which is legislated, versus First Nations communities where we don’t even have that basic legislation,” said Wiggins.       

Changes are in the works, however. In this year’s federal budget, the government indicated funding would be allocated over the next three years for an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office.

The money for the office is part of $49.4 million the government pledged to provide Indigenous communities this year to better support emergency management. The government has promised to keep that cash coming for the next five years. Exactly how much of that money will go to the Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office hasn’t been finalized, said Lazare.     

Blaine Wiggins, executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, says some Indigenous communities have well-established rules around fire prevention while others have almost none. (Dominic Hull)

“Ninety-eight per cent of our work has to be shifted to ensuring we have safer communities, public education, awareness, safer homes and … just preventing fires and trying to eliminate them,” said Wiggins.   

The organizers setting up the office will travel around the country meeting with people in Indigenous communities to see what services they would like the office to provide, said Lazare. Once that is complete, a central office is expected to be set up in Ottawa, with regional offices then going into place across the country.

A staff of regional fire marshals will be hired and about 70 full-time jobs will be created in all. Lazare expects that it will take three years to get all that done and have the office up and running.  

Some of the duties the office could perform include helping to develop fire bylaws, training fire departments, making sure firefighting equipment meets certain standards and promoting fire safety.

Lazare said getting out and spreading information about fire prevention and fire safety is key to saving lives.

“I know it saves lives. In our home community we have a Grade 1 student who woke up and heard the smoke detector and got his family out based on the lessons of the fire prevention people.” 

Five children escaped but a two-month-old baby died in fire at a home on the Manitoba First Nation of St. Theresa Point in 2013. (RCMP)

Once set up, it’s estimated that the new fire marshal’s office will cost $16 million a year to run.  

Creating the new office is a great idea, according to the organization that represents fire marshals across the country. 

“We certainly see it as a very positive step forward to establish this office and to enable the supports to be given to the Indigenous communities the same as other communities currently receive,” said Gordon Anderson, president of the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners. 

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