Good morning, everyone. This is the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are beginning our study on wildfires in first nations communities.
In the first panel from 11 o'clock to 12 o'clock, we have the Assembly of First Nations and Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management, represented by Richard Kent who I see here. Because you're prompt, you get to go first.
You get 10 minutes to present, then we'll hear from the other presenter, if they're here, and then we do a series of questions.
The first thing we do, especially now that we're in a process of truth and reconciliation, is to recognize that we're on unceded Algonquin territory. It reminds us that we're in the process of a land claims study to look at the most important relationship, and the first relationship, the contracts that we made with the first peoples of this nation.
Richard, welcome. I'm so glad that you travelled from Saskatchewan, I'm assuming.
Thank you, Chair and honourable members of the committee. I thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to speak to the very important issue of fire safety and emergency management in our first nations communities. I am accompanied by Peter A. Beatty, chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, Saskatchewan.
Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on unceded traditional Algonquin territory.
I will begin by briefly describing how I have organized my office and its operations to support my mandate of providing emergency preparedness and fire safety training to all of Saskatchewan's first nations people and communities.
My office conducts a range of activities in support of Saskatchewan's first nations communities. I have organized it into two divisions.
First is fire and safety. We provide community training in all aspects of structural and wildland/urban interface firefighting. We provide advanced training in other areas such as auto extrication, water and ice rescue training, confined space, and a multitude of other training, depending on the community's needs. We provide fire prevention programs with the communities as well. We perform fire investigations and fire inspections for Head Start and day care buildings.
Next is emergency preparedness and response. We provide all aspects of emergency preparedness training to all of Saskatchewan’s first nations communities. We also respond to emergencies in communities, when called upon to do so by the elected officials. We will set up and help to run a community or regional operation centre when it's requested by an elected official. We provide support and guidance to communities affected by emergencies, as well as act in a liaison capacity between the communities and other municipal, provincial, or federal agencies involved in the emergency.
In terms of human resources, my office has a total of eight positions, one of which is currently vacant at this time. I have four staffers for fire and safety training, and four staffers for emergency preparedness training and response.
I'll now address our challenges. I am going to read from an article by Professor James Waldram, of the University of Saskatchewan, who did a study on the Wollaston Lake fire and evacuation. He said, "...the irony is clear: the disaster of which many residents spoke pertains not to the threat of wildfire, but to the efforts to protect them from it.”
As emergencies continue to become more and more prevalent across Canada within our first nations communities, we need to ensure that all of our fist nations communities across Canada have the proper training and people in place to ensure the least amount of disruption to these communities. To do this we must ensure that sufficient support structures are put in place to manage these emergencies properly.
We must also ensure that we understand the effects that chronic disruptions to community life can have on these communities long after repatriation. In my opinion, a support staff of four for over 100 communities in Saskatchewan does not meet the requirements to ensure safe community readiness in either fire safety or emergency preparedness.
The other challenge is that the funding that is received for the staffing level of eight is on a year-to-year basis and is obviously not very conducive for qualified staff hiring or retention.
In my role as vice-president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, AFAC, we have been leading a project to design and build a national fire marshal’s office in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations leadership and staff, regional first nations partners, and key allies.
Our tribal council stands firmly in support of the creation of this office as long as its development is guided by first nations. We feel it is very important that the office is designed by us, for us. This office could ensure that proper standards and codes are being met and followed, which in turn would help to ensure adequate standards for our first nations communities and their levels of preparedness in the emergencies field in the following ways: remove regional disparity; develop national standards for emergency services within first nations; provide needed fire prevention focus; support regional and community incident response; build a base of first nations emergency services expertise; gather incident data to be used to redefine what needs to be changed, enhanced, or supplemented in first nations emergency services; and help to ensure adequate funding to existing compliant emergency services offered by first nations institutions.
In conclusion, again, thank you to the committee for inviting me to discuss fire safety and emergency management and for the opportunity to ensure that you, as our elected officials, have your questions answered from the boots-on-the-ground emergency officials.
This concludes my opening statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have for me.
Thank you, Madam Chair and honourable committee members, for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding the impacts of the wildfires on our northern communities.
The Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, PBCN, is a large multi-community band located in Saskatchewan and has a population of 10,655 members, seven distinct northern communities, and one community located just outside of Prince Albert. The seven northern PBCN communities are spread throughout a vast traditional territory of approximately 51,000 square kilometres.
During the first week of August, 2017, several fires were started due to lightning strikes in the vicinity of a number of PBCN communities. Although the fires began as small and manageable, as they grew daily they came to significantly impact three of the PBCN communities. Poor air quality and direct fire threat led to the evacuation of approximately 2,800 PBCN band members. These evacuated members were displaced for approximately 34 days.
During Wildfire Management's actioning of the fires and the efforts to evacuate, shelter, and repatriate community members, there were several significant issues that surfaced that I would like to bring to your attention at this time. These issues fall under the areas of communication, actioning of fires, and funding.
In the area of communication, clarity is needed in the definition and terminology used by Wildfire Management when describing operations. Differing definitions used throughout the event were confusing and at times misleading. Provincial teleconferences regarding strategy and event management were closed to the PBCN leadership and the emergency operations centre, resulting in a question of transparency of operational communications.
In the area of actioning of fires, the timeliness of actioning fires with manpower and equipment is a major concern. The impacts to the communities would have been minimized if the original small fires had been controlled earlier. Instead, major roads, critical infrastructure, and public safety were compromised significantly. Over 185,000 hectares of traditional lands were impacted, and a community of over 3,500 people was threatened. This led to the general evacuation of Pelican Narrows.
In the area of funding, wildfires have significant financial and human resource costs to the bands and their agencies. Expectations that these costs will be absorbed by the band are unrealistic, based on the current funding practices and models. Both health services and the band are mandated to have emergency response plans in place. However, no funding is allocated to this. During this event, it was clear that having an emergency response coordinator, ERC, in place to provide leadership and coordination through a band-led emergency operations centre had major benefits for all stakeholders.
There are unfunded costs associated with community security, local fire suppression, and maintaining sustenance and supply chain to essential services remaining in the community. It is essential to have health workers and other community agency staff working with community members at evacuation sites to provide support and continuity of care. This is another unfunded cost.
These are only some of the costs associated with community emergencies that are expected to be borne by the band and are not clearly defined in reimbursement models.
I am respectfully requesting the federal government to review the attached information package and to consider the following requests related to forest fire management and response.
Operational terms need to be clearly defined along with current fire actioning policies and made available to first nations stakeholders.
During an emergency event affecting a first nation, it should be deemed standard procedure to have first nations representation at all provincial/federal meetings where decisions will be made regarding event management, strategy, or provision of services affecting the first nation.
Standard operating procedures or guidelines utilized by Wildfire Management to define the actioning threshold for a fire need to be reviewed. In our opinion, the fires could have been managed better to minimize the effects on the communities and the large traditional land area. We are requesting a review of the fire suppression efforts of Wildfire Management by an impartial third party. This should result in improved outcomes in future fires.
Congregate shelters have had ongoing concerns regarding such things as the safety of at-risk populations, maximum length of state, utilization of traditional foods, and activities to name a few. Where congregate shelters are absolutely necessary, a first nations committee should be engaged to advise on standardized shelter management policies and procedures.
The La Ronge 2015 wildfires resulted in INAC giving a verbal indication of funding for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, LLRIB, health emergency response coordinator position. This should be extended to include the PBCN health ERC position as well.
Standard covered services should be clearly defined by INAC/FNIHB.
INAC and the province should work with first nations to identify locations within first nations communities that could serve as alternate shelter locations, and support them the same as any other shelter facility.
Permanent clean air shelters should be supported to reduce health risks during times of delayed evacuation, when sheltering in place and/or as respite during poor air quality due to high smoke levels.
First nations should be supported through funding and manpower in the areas earlier identified as funding deficiencies. As stated, the recent wildfires of 2017 have had significant impacts on the PBCN northern communities. Two reports that document the Lac La Ronge 2015 and the PBCN 2017 wildfires will be completed by March 31, 2018. These would greatly assist in future planning and policy review.
In closing, I would like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to address the standing committee, and I look forward to any questions you may have.
Initially when we declared the emergency evacuation, we made contact with the province, social services, and emergency services to let them know that we needed to get people out of the community. They sent in school buses for the priority one patients. These were the elderly and small children and so on.
Of course, I raised some concerns, which were later addressed when they sent in coach buses, which were a little more comfortable. We had some real concerns with them sending school buses to the community to haul out our priority one patients. That's not a very comfortable ride when it's approximately four hours to Prince Albert or five hours to Saskatoon.
Those were the resources that we had, in conjunction with some private vehicles that left the community at that time. When we went to the priorities two and three, we had the coaches there to transport those people. Then for the general evacuation, a lot of people took their own vehicles to leave the community. We didn't have a lot of resources provided. Of course, for the people who wanted to go out on their own, we had to assist them with the gas they needed. I think the lunches were provided when they got to Prince Albert or Saskatoon.
The majority of the evacuees were taken to a congregate shelter in the soccer stadium in Saskatoon. Some were in Prince Albert, and I forget the name of the facility they used there. I don't think it was a congregate. It was mostly hotel rooms that we initially provided for them. Then we contacted the Red Cross, and they took over from there in terms of getting people into hotels in Prince Albert and Saskatoon.
We've had many lessons learned because we've had emergencies in Saskatchewan, due to forest fires, flooding, and everything else over the years. One of the lessons learned is that values at risk that may be identified by the province are not the values at risk identified by the first nations communities.
An example of that would be that a value at risk with the province is a structure, building, cabin, or something like that. When we talk to our chiefs, elders, and people in the communities, the values at risk for them are the forests next to the communities. Some may go out to Safeway to do their shopping, but our communities go to the forests to do their shopping. That's where they gather their food, berries, and medicines. However, that's not looked at as a value at risk in a lot of cases.
The other lessons that we've learned are that there are cultural differences and we have to ensure the communities look after their own people. The communities need to tell the emergency staff, whether it's my staff, provincial staff, or federal staff, that there are some things we need to do that are culturally different. We need to ensure that they have a say in that.
We need agreements. We need agreements in Canada because eventually all of us need to ask for help. We look after ourselves first, and then we go out to the community. Then we may go to the province, and then we may go federal. We do need agreements, I agree, but in some instances, these agreements were being negotiated between the federal government and the province, and we didn't really have any of our first nations communities involved.
A couple of years ago, when those agreements were getting ready to be signed, our chiefs said, “Whoa, hold on. You're making an agreement that deals with our communities. You need to talk to us.” In one case in Saskatchewan, they were looking at funding $1 million to the province for positions for the province. We need the positions. That's building capacity in the province, and that's great, but what about the capacity in the first nations communities?
That hasn't gone on, and from what we're hearing, they're looking a little differently at that. It's just a problem that we have to deal with. We do need agreements, but the agreements can say, “When we need you, we will call you, and we'll pay you a normal fee for service when we need you.”
We did run into that. It's fresh in my mind that we did try to get our certified firefighters.... They're called level three firefighters. Level one are the initial attack crews funded by the province. They're very well-trained men. You also have the first nations firefighters at level two. Then you have level three, certified firefighters who are trained and certified to fight fires within the community.
We had a heck of a time trying to get anybody out on the fires, especially in terms of our own local people who are certified. We couldn't get them out on the fires to do any of the work that was needed. If you're going to put out a fire, you need boots on the ground. Dropping water from an air tanker or a helicopter, bucketing, is not going to put a fire out.
If any of you have any experience in fighting forest fires, you know you have to dig it out of the ground. You have to do all of that hard work if you're going to put the fire out. If you want to manage the fire and direct it around communities, you may well be able to do that with heavy equipment, then air tankers, and then helicopters, but I think that has to be rethought, that part of the firefighting strategy, especially within proximity of populated areas and infrastructure.
That has to change because right now what's happening is, they're managing fires. You have to look at it in terms of when you action a fire. Their policy, I believe, states that, when an infrastructure is in danger, that's when they action the fire. Action means putting men and equipment there. You can use that same terminology when you're monitoring a fire via satellite monitoring. We had access to that as well. We knew when those fires started, and when they were small and manageable, but there was no action because there was no direct threat to any infrastructure. When they did blow up, then they tried to manage it, but it was too late.
The resources that are needed in each of our communities, especially the ones with road access.... I'll talk about structural fires as opposed to forest fires. For structural fires, basically what you need is a fire hall and a fire truck, as well as trained personnel and the proper equipment to address a structural fire, a house fire.
We didn't have that in our major community in Pelican Narrows. On their own initiative, the community put together money to purchase a fire truck, and then I believe they worked with Indigenous and Northern Affairs in trying to acquire a fire hall, which they are in the process of doing. This was after we lost a number of young people, children, to house fires. We didn't have the proper equipment. We didn't have a fire truck. We had nothing other than the fire hydrants, because there is a water system in place. There are no trained volunteer or paid firefighters.
Another community is going along the same lines, the community of Southend Reindeer, which is 222 kilometres north of Lac la Ronge, on the south end of Reindeer Lake. Thankfully, they have been able to get funding for a small fire hall. They are in the process of getting a fire truck as well, and getting structural firefighters trained to use that equipment properly and to be able to respond.
In terms of our reserve communities, where we live on reserve, we have first nations firefighters who are funded by the province, but they react to fires only when they're allowed to by the province. They're not really under the direct control of the local leaders. That's something we need to work on as well.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
We often get asked, especially after events, what the problem or the main concern is, and what the challenges are within first nations communities in the fire service and emergency services. The problem with the question is that there is an expectation that it's a simple question and there is a simple answer. The reality is that nobody wants to listen occasionally to the long answer.
Several years ago, we sat down as a national organization with representation from emergency services across Canada, and the one thing we asked ourselves was, “Would more resources resolve the issues we are dealing with?” We came to the quick conclusion that no amount of resources would have different outcomes than we already have if we don't change the way we are doing things. When I say “we”, I mean all of us: first nations communities, the federal government, and provincial governments. Since we had that discussion, several years ago, although we have been working very hard to educate, bring awareness, and bring a strategy, the reality is that our outcomes have not changed dramatically.
I know we have a very short time, so I won't get into details, but these are some of the issues that we identified as problems. One is disparity of resources from region to region. There are have regions and have-not regions. We have a lack of data collection. Data collection isn't just about collecting information; it's about deciding what we need to do and how we need to respond to that, which is a fundamental aspect of fire prevention and fire safety for any community. We have no established coordination of fire services, although there is established forestry coordination, and some of that does involve first nations fire crews. What is left out is municipal fire services, and specifically first nations fire services.
Each province has fire protection legislation. Our first nations communities are not afforded any type of fire protection legislation, which includes linkages to building codes and fire life safety codes. It's also important to note that although this is a strong pillar that supports protecting our communities and our citizens, any type of legislation needs to be designed by first nations and for first nations. We are in the process of actively engaging the Assembly of First Nations and the national housing and infrastructure chiefs to seek support and a mandate to address this specific gap, among others.
As I indicated, we sat down several years ago and we defined and focused on four specific areas that we feel would address many of the issues in first nations communities related to fire and fire safety. Fire prevention is the biggest one. Again, I could spend hours talking about just this one issue. There is a lack of fire prevention, and a lack of focus on fire prevention.
I spoke briefly about legislative standards. Legislative standards alone aren't the answer. It's the ability of first nations communities to have the resources and the capacity to utilize those standards.
On fire service operations, again, we have no standards across Canada, or even within regions, when it comes to basic things like training and equipment. We don't do environmental scans. We don't have robust fire protection programs. We don't have community infrastructure support. We have challenges with volunteerism. The majority of fire services in first nations communities are based on volunteers. We have very few paid fire services in first nations communities. Again, these are just some very small examples.
The last area that we are focusing on is national coordination of aboriginal fire services. We haven't rested on our laurels and come up with a great idea. We've been working very hard. As an example, we continually have discussions to gain support and seek and share information back with our national partners, including the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association, the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and the National Fire Protection Association, just to name a few groups that we work proactively with.
Other areas for national coordination include emergency medical services. Many of our first nations communities are located a long way from higher-care medical. There is a gap there, even on who is coordinating and offering emergency medical services.
I won't repeat some of our previous witnesses, but the issue around emergency management is a very, very big issue.
Again, just speaking really quickly—I don't want to take up all of my colleagues' time—some of the issues we saw this summer were the lack of response to first nations communities within British Columbia, which is where I'm based; and some of the fire departments were not permitted to protect their own fire departments, including first nations fire departments. While doing their best efforts to enforce and protect evacuated zones, both police and military impeded fire, and health and safety services.
While the fires are over, we still have the impacts post-event. There were some major gaps, not just during the event, but during preplanning. This is one of the things that can go wrong, just the inability to do a preplan. Once a fire or incident is in play, we can see some catastrophic events. We're very fortunate that we haven't see them here in Canada yet, and I emphasize the “yet”. All of our focus has to be around—again I'm repeating some of my colleagues—building capacity within first nations.
If I can very quickly share a story, I was the executive director for the First Nations' Emergency Services, so I know my colleagues here very well. In 2009, I was invited to Australia to work with the federal government to basically showcase how we, as an aboriginal organization, work with federal and provincial governments to improve emergency management within first nations communities. Unfortunately, I arrived in early February 2009, during the catastrophic fires we had. I was able to see first-hand how not having this capacity in place can have devastating impacts.
We saw that just recently in California. We are seeing a much different environment now. We are seeing much different fire behaviour now.
If I can just leave off, while the fires are over, the post-event of those fires, the psychosocial impacts, the economic impacts, the health impacts, the ongoing impacts, the ability to gather traditional foods, and hunting, are ongoing. Again, I lived this first-hand every day where I live.
I'll turn it over to my colleague for any final comments.
I'll give you a quick overview of what we witnessed during the 2017 wildfires.
They came about very quickly this past summer in B.C. In May and June, we had a very unusual wet weather event that created much flooding through the interior of B.C. That's when the emergency response kicked in for many first nations. That was quickly followed by a very dry unusual weather event for the rest of June that resulted in a severe wildfire risk.
On July 7, fires ignited in the Kamloops and Caribou regions of B.C. It caught everybody a bit off guard, I believe. They just happened so quickly that it created a significant impact to the communities in both those areas, first nations and non-first nations alike.
I'll give you a quick snapshot of FNESS. We're a non-profit society in the interior of B.C., managed by our first nations board of directors. We offer structural wildfire prevention, fuel management services, emergency management, response recovery, and planning. We are just getting into that again this year. We do critical stress incident counselling through a contract with the First Nations Health Authority. We also provide training, education, and awareness in the areas of wildfire suppression, governance, and leadership.
With regard to emergency management, wildfire prevention, and suppression by first nations, over the last few years the Province of B.C., the federal government, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada have been working on an agreement for the province, through Emergency Management BC to look after emergency response planning on federal lands for first nations in B.C.
Our First Nations Leadership Council, which is comprised of the Assembly First Nations, B.C. region; First Nations Summit; and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has been working diligently with first nations communities, FNESS, and other organizations for the implementation of that agreement.
It's quite a significant agreement where the three parties would actively engage in the response with regard to management planning. The Province of B.C., through the B.C. Wildfire Service and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada also have an agreement where B.C. Wildfire Service provides fire suppression on first nations lands in the event of wildfires.
In summary, the events that occurred this past wildfire season occurred so quickly that the ability to effectively respond, with current agreements noted above, created issues for the provincial and federal governments, and first nations agencies and organizations. There were significant structural losses to first nations homes and assets. Wildfire suppression and emergency management response efforts were also tested and many issues resulted. There are provincial and federal reviews occurring and planned over the winter and spring of 2017-18 related to prevention, suppression, and emergency response.
It is very clear that the first nations organizations, First Nations Leadership Council, FNESS, and first nations communities need to be engaged and involved at all levels to ensure that first nations communities and organizations have direct and meaningful involvement in planning and decision-making, and resourced for effective engagement to ensure these agreements work effectively in future years.
There are various documents from the First Nations Leadership Council that we can make available to the committee with regard to resolutions our leadership has passed over the years to ensure that effective engagement occurs with the provincial and federal governments.
Many of the presentations earlier, by the chief and other presenters this morning, were similar to what happened in B.C. Basically, the events occurred so quickly, it was difficult for those agreements to be implemented effectively. Some of the communities had a bit of difficulty engaging with Emergency Management BC on the implementation of that response and recovery. It provided some issues for the first nations to get access to those resources through EMBC and the federal government. I must admit that first nations did very well with some of those challenges.
There were also challenges around the suppression agreement. We have first nations communities that have the training capacity, and the ability to respond to wildfires. Unfortunately, because they are not engaged in that agreement with the province and the federal government, they had an inability to get suppression crews directly onto their doorsteps to fight those fires.
Many of the first nations communities declined evacuation orders and stayed behind to fight those wildfires. I think if they had not made that decision, there would have been greater losses to their first nations communities.
They do have that ability to fight the fires. What they don't have is the ability to actively engage in those agreements. Also, with the agreement with the EMBC for emergency response and planning, I think we need to do a little more work in that area so the first nations communities are available to implement those agreements before they happen, in terms of the preplanning preparation.
A lot of first nations communities in B.C. don't have resources when it comes to emergency management. They have a lot of emergency management plans, but when you don't have the resources to implement or work them, you're basically taking them off the shelf during an event.
A lot of things occurred to the province, and there are going to be many reviews over the next few months and into the spring in regard to what occurred. We suggest that the first nations be actively involved in all those reviews at the local community, regional, and provincial levels, to ensure that first nations are well-prepped and involved in decision-making on how these resources are deployed for future events, and that the preparation is there for our first nations communities.
We have the organizations, the capacity, and the resources in the first nations communities, whether it is wildfire suppression or structural fire protection. We just don't have the ability to have them deployed immediately, so we'd like to see some of that occur in the future.
I want to read off a reference that one of our staff members gave me in terms of recommendations. First nations communities need to change—and I don't think the wording should be “to change”. I think the process has to change from victims who are protected into resources that are utilized, so that we can effectively utilize the communities and resources that we have.
We have gone through many years of training, capacity, and skill development. We just need that opportunity to have those crews implement that training on the ground when these events occur.
Those are some of the biggest points I wanted to make today. I'm not sure if Curtis has anything more to add.
Sure. Thank you, honourable members. I'd like to add a couple of things, first to build on the resource capacity of our community members.
As fire chiefs in communities, we're often billed as the go-to person during an emergency, whether that's emergency coordinator or fire chief. Not only that, you're also the maintenance director, you're also the housing supervisor, wearing many different hats as one person. That's not always at the forefront of their job description. It's at the side of their desk, and they're saying, “I'll have to get to it.” We're being very reactive as opposed to proactive.
I don't want to talk about everything the guys have already mentioned, sort of beating it to death. More importantly, we have to recognize the capacity within first nations communities. I recently went to an emergency coordinators conference in Vancouver and I read in one of the opening statements, “despite having taught first nations communities”. We have a lot to teach, as well. We need people to come and see what we're capable of doing. We don't have all the toys that many municipalities have. We don't have the ladder trucks. We don't have all that stuff, but more importantly, we have human resources. We have local knowledge. We know exactly where the fires are going to burn from, when the winds change, what the water conditions are like. We have all that local history that is not documented in these plans.
We need to be active. We need to be active partners in this, rather than just people. Like Jeff said, we don't want to be the victims, we want to be the resources in the communities. We're able to help as well, that's what I'm saying.
Probably one of the biggest voids that will be filled is addressing inconsistency and bringing consistency to issues like public education. Many of our first nations communities have no public education, no fire education, no fire prevention. If we talk about emergency management, while the idea has not been really flushed out, I believe there's an opportunity for an indigenous fire marshal's office to support both regional organizations and communities.
If I can use an example, from region to region to region—I know my esteemed colleague Mr. Kent talked extensively about Saskatchewan. They have a fantastic program for emergency management there. I draw on my experience in 2009, when I returned from Australia, and we had a catastrophic fire season in B.C. At that time, FNESS had a very robust emergency management division that supported first nations communities, both the communities that had high capacity and the communities that had low capacity, so we could bring consistency. I believe during that fire season, over 50 FNESS personnel were deployed to various fires in the Williams Lake area, the Tsilhqot'in area, and the Lillooet area, and they were there not to do things but to work with the communities and to address the small gaps.
I'll utilize an example. Because we had fire behaviour rules, all the community needed was just somebody to help them do some preplanning around fire behaviour. They could do the rest, the emergency social services. They had an emergency plan in place. Then we moved ahead a couple of years and the regional director general of B.C. unfortunately decided to disband that program and eliminate the funding. These are very, very knowledgeable people. I've had the opportunity to work with them in the field. I worked with them this summer in emergency centres in the communities, but when you're doing stuff off the side of your desk to try to help communities help themselves, it doesn't lend itself to consistency.
Again, our organization isn't about building an empire; it's about building capacity within communities. I would just note that AFAC is basically the regional organization, so FNESS is a member of AFAC. The Prince Albert Grand Council is a member of AFAC. We're an organization of organizations, and it's ultimately all about consistency.
We've identified one of the challenges we're working on right now. We did our first presentation to the Assembly of First Nations National Housing and Infrastructure Forum in Montreal last week, and the number one thing that came up is funding and the protection of funding. I know the number one job of Brent Langlois, my colleague from finance and the executive director, is to maintain funding and ensure that programs and services aren't cut.
One of the things we need to do is make sure that, as part of our mandate to create a new organization, we're not stealing any funding. For decades now it's been a limited pot, and whenever you accomplish something new, the number one concern is where it's going to come from and who is going to lose. Certainly, in our discussions with the minister's office and staff, our mandate is that we're not going to steal anybody else's funding, and we won't offset.
We will be collaborating with the regional organizations. They've done some fantastic work, and if anything, we can take advantage. The number one goal of the office is to not have an executive director in any region, who has an existing emergency services organization that's doing good work, worry about whether they can do that good work next year. Again, as a former executive director who had to go through the switches being cut off, it impacted the community.
One of our biggest challenges in emergency services is that there are not a lot of professional first nations practitioners out there. Whether it be with fire, emergency management, or public safety, there are very few jobs. Also, the few jobs and the few trained people we can get are easily stolen by mainstream. We recognize that, even if we can create a structure and an organization that is not well-funded but just adequately funded, we can't compete with mainstream fire. It is one of the best-paid employment services one can get into now. We know this is going to be a constant challenge, but I think we're up to the challenge, because we're all getting old. We have to train the next generation.
Yes. The way the system works in Australia is that, basically, if it's a city, they run it themselves. Outside the city, it's the state fire service. Whether it's an aboriginal community, an incorporated community, or an unincorporated community, it's the state fire service that runs it.
Basically, it's the field of dreams concept. We'll build it, and you come. The state runs the fire service there. They do all the training standards. If we had that equivalent system here, where a province ran the fire service, and any first nations community said, “We want a fire department”, or a non-first nations community, the province would then come in and provide the equipment, the infrastructure, the training, and it's a set standard.
I'll use an example of one of the states that said they were having a problem with volunteerism in the fire service. I asked what their numbers were, and they said it was about 300,000. I thought that was incredible.“Your country has 300,000?” They said, “No, no, the state has 300,000.” We don't have 200,000 or approximately 200,000 volunteer firefighters in the country. They're doing a much better job at running it, but they do it state-wide, and the funding isn't an issue. It's not a fight. It's not a jurisdictional issue. There's one standard.
Yes, and it would be remiss of us not to say that not all first nations have a challenge with capacity. There are many good examples in B.C. of very robust fire service. I think that is the challenge we deal with. In the evolution of fire service, we had first nations really pushing our leaders—some of them sit on boards now and do that leadership role—in the seventies and eighties for funding for fire service, because even then it wasn't a part of federal funding.
We had communities that didn't know a lot about fire service and a federal government that didn't know a whole lot about fire service. The end result was about 30 years of focus just on fire suppression, not the rest of the fire service. Fire suppression accounts for about 2% of the fire service. In terms of firefighters' time, what firefighters go and do to fight fires is 2%, while 98% is around safe buildings, public education, fire prevention, building inspections, and preplanned examinations. We're playing catch-up, and that's really what we need to do.
When we talk about standards, it's around standards for the fire service, and again, it's about building on the capacity that exists regionally and within the communities. As Curtis articulated, we don't necessarily need fire departments in each community. What we need are fire risk management, fire plans, and good prevention. That's what saves lives, especially in rural and remote areas, regardless of whether it's first nations or not first nations. If you don't prevent fires, a rural fire department very rarely gets to save a life or a building.
If I may, I want to share a quick story. I was in northern B.C. last year. In the community I went to, they talked about wildfires.
There was an old guy who sat in his field and set it on fire. I guess he had quite a big field, and as he let it burn, the forestry ministry and the wildland firefighters showed up and were all getting nervous. They asked if he knew his field was on fire. He said, “Yes, I do.” He was sitting there having a sandwich. As he sat there with his sandwich, those guys were making a plan to attack the fire, saying where they going to build a guard. He very calmly told them to just leave it, that it would be okay. He had been doing this for probably 30 or 40 years, but the ministry and the wildland firefighters didn't come and introduce themselves and ask what he had been doing to protect his property while it was still standing.
It's the lack of communication that's happening. For the stuff that Jeff's been talking about, the wildland burning that's been happening for years, how many communities do we know that are actually doing that? We have to step outside the box and say, “Let's introduce ourselves to our neighbours, and let's not wait until an event happens.”