Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs speaking as Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, and Chief of Enoch Cree Nation Billy Morin
Here’s a very Canadian problem: we don’t know how many people die in house fires on First Nations reserves. The government stopped asking First Nations for that information in 2010 “in order to reduce the reporting burden,” Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reported to Parliament in November.
We see this sort of thing a lot in the news on aboriginal issues: getting the RCMP to report the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women was like pulling teeth; on missing and murdered indigenous men it was like trying to put those teeth back in. But lack of data is a national, systemic disgrace. The latest national statistics on all house fire fatalities are 10 years old.
In the wake of a Toronto Star investigation suggesting at least 173 people have perished in fires on reserves since 2010, measuring the problem again certainly seems like a logical response — so logical, in fact, that one wonders why Bennett didn’t do it on her first day in office. The burden, surely, is bearable: “There were three,” I imagine a local official saying, then hanging up the phone.
On the policy side, the Star investigation touched on several possible solutions: “legislation enforcing the national fire code,” for example, and “a national First Nations fire marshal’s office.” This week she committed to the latter, if the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada recommends it, and to collecting data again.
But on the political side, we have seen the usual buck-passing: “The wide-reaching need for improved infrastructure — like housing, community centres, and fire protection services — is a result of years of chronic underfunding,” Bennett told Postmedia in December. ‘Twas ever thus. In a particularly gruesome incident at the tail end of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, two men burned to death in their cells at the police station in Kashechewan, on James Bay. An unnamed “senior government official” blamed the reserve for spending money on housing instead of fire safety.
As with missing and murdered indigenous Canadians, however, we are really dealing with a symptom — one that will defy specific national solutions crafted in Ottawa. The Star profiled the Six Nations Fire Department in southwestern Ontario as a success story, but in so many words explained it was successful because the reserve is relatively affluent. Affluence is correlated not just with having a well-trained fire department with modern and effective equipment, but with all sorts of things that are also correlated with lower risk of dying in a fire: well-built and properly heated homes; not smoking; not being impaired by alcohol or drugs; having a working smoke detector.
It’s no sure thing that Kashechewan screwed up by spending money on housing rather than on a fire department. The best way to survive a house fire is for it not to start, and that’s true no matter where you live or who you are. This isn’t a “First Nations issue” except inasmuch as First Nations, as a population, are disadvantaged relative to other Canadians on social indicators that predict a vast catalogue of bad outcomes, from going to jail to homelessness to dying in a fire or getting murdered. Individual white Anglo-Saxon Canadians so disadvantaged run similar risks; individual aboriginal Canadians who are not so disadvantaged do not.
This isn’t a ‘First Nations issue’ except inasmuch as First Nations, as a population, are disadvantaged relative to other Canadians on social indicators
That’s not to say there’s nothing to be done while progress marches slowly forward: how much could it cost to send a smoke detector to every First Nations household? And it’s not to say lives won’t be saved by focusing on fire safety and firefighting per se. But truly transformational change on this front will only come with transformational change on the most basic fronts: education, employment, income. That’s a massive job.
Of all the sweeping changes the Liberals promised or allowed to be projected on them, none are more fraught with peril than that transformation — in Ottawa-First Nations relations, and in their citizens’ lives.
Promises broken (wisely or not) thus far include adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lifting the two per cent cap on funding increases for programs on reserves, boosting the Post Secondary Education Support Program and giving First Nations a veto on resource development on their lands. Budget-wise, the government’s back is up against the wall. And while massively, rapidly improving the lot of Canada’s struggling First Nations is not just a matter of throwing scads of money at them, nor can it be accomplished without throwing scads of money at them. It is also an absolute moral imperative, in my view — one the Liberals would shrug off at enormous peril to all of us