‘The System Is Broken’ Say Ontario First Nations Firefighters Of Fire Protection In Indigenous Communities

By Thomas Fitzgerald

Indigenous Fire-Related Deaths ‘Frustrating and Heartbreaking’

Matthew Miller is president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society and fire chief for the Six Nations of the Grand River. After an early morning fire at Big Trout Lake killed five people, four of them children under the age of 13, Miller said the fact that Indigenous people keep dying in house fires “angers him” and he’s calling out for fundamental change.

“First Nations fire protection in Ontario and right across Canada, the system is broken,” said Miller. “The system requires complete overall reform; that’s the biggest thing that needs to occur.” Miller’s sentiment is backed by a 2010 federal report that found that First Nations residents are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than the rest of the Canadian population.

Community Chief Donny Morris cited a lack of adequate firefighting equipment and hydrants without sufficient water pressure as factors hampering his crew’s effort to extinguish the May 2 structure fire. The Big Trout Lake fire is not an isolated incident. Numerous Northern Ontario First Nation people have lost their life in a home inferno, including two children and one baby who were among the nine dead from a 2016 house fire in Pikangikum.

Miller says though federal data confirms a higher than average death rate for Indigenous deaths from a house fire, the level of fire protection in a given community, as portrayed by federal statistics, often is not accurate and is at odds with his organization’s fire assessments.

“We would have a list of the First Nation and what they were listed as in the federal database – whether or not they have fire protection – and Big Trout Lake was typical of many of the First Nations we went to…they were listed as having fire protection but when we arrived in the community, they did not have fire protection,” said Miller. “By that I mean…they may have received a fire truck in the past, but unfortunately, an organized fire service was unable to be established.”

Miller says Indigenous communities lack fire protection regulations and legislation, unlike municipalities, which are well governed by specialized risk assessments. “When you treat every First Nation exactly the same way, with a formula, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Every First Nation is unique and they have their own issues,” explained Miller. “A municipality knows their risk because they have a community risk assessment done, they have the data to backup the service level they require for their protection of their community, but none of that exists for First Nations across Canada.”

Miller said First Nation communities located near a large population center generally have adequate protection but the more remote the community, the more likely their fire protection is substandard thus presenting significant risk for loss of life in a fire. “When you’re in a highly populated area…you pretty much have access to every vendor that you would need to do servicing on equipment or access to equipment, or even for training capabilities,” said Miller. “When you get into a remote, fly-in community, the cost alone to have someone come and service your vehicle is exponentially increased.”