Madam Chair, and members of the committee, thanks so much for the invitation to speak with you today.
My name is Jean-Philippe Tizi. I'm the chief of Canadian operations with the Canadian Red Cross. I'm joined today by Bill Mintram, senior manager of indigenous relations within the Canadian Red Cross.
We are very pleased to be with you today to share some of the observations and learnings from this year's wildfire season, which, as we know, has been extremely intense.
I would like to start by speaking briefly about the Canadian Red Cross collaboration with indigenous people and communities across the country. The Canadian Red Cross has a long history of working with indigenous people and communities. We have in fact worked with over 200 first nations across Canada so far. The community is at the centre of all Canadian Red Cross work and our goal is, obviously, to empower community leadership and enhance local capacity in a community-driven and community-led format. As an organization, we are committed to reconciliation, cultural safety, and collaboration with indigenous leadership, community organizations, and partners. We are also committed to a community-based service delivery that acknowledges first nations, Métis, and Inuit sovereignty, including nation-to-nation relationships.
Wildfire season 2017, as we know, was an extremely intense season that impacted so many people across the country, but mainly in the west. This summer we saw an active wildfire season with more than 5,300 fires that burned an area larger than 34,000 square kilometres. As part of this response, the Red Cross worked closely alongside indigenous people and communities, provincial governments, and INAC, of course, to assist more than 84,270 Canadians. This work included mobilizing more than 3,000 personal support people across more than 57 locations, including providing support to over 30 affected indigenous communities across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, of course, British Columbia, and also some in Alberta in a more limited fashion. Allow me to highlight some of the key actions of our work.
In Manitoba the Red Cross supported five indigenous communities. As you know, we were working with local leadership, INAC, and DND to coordinate the evacuation of more than 7,200 people. We arranged around 300 flights. We mobilized our troops and our logistic capacities to organize those flights. We have been supported as well by DND, who mobilized 12 flights as well just to complete the work. Also, as part of a five-year agreement with INAC we have been providing emergency supports to Manitoba first nations. Our team has worked with 12 first nations on emergency preparedness activities before this season and is now continuing. That's Manitoba in a very short fashion.
For Saskatchewan, in September 2017 extreme heat and dry weather resulted in the evacuation of 2,860 people. Evacuees were sent to Prince Albert and Saskatoon. We again provided emergency social services to all the evacuees on behalf of the provincial authorities for a total of 24 days. Again, it was a very long evacuation. This support included accommodation for 2,860 evacuees as well as the distribution of over 6,500 supplies, including cots, blankets, and comfort kits.
In B.C., obviously the largest of all the efforts this summer, there was a very long and intense response. We responded to hundreds of fires across the province and we assisted in B.C. more than 50,000 Canadians in the provision of accommodation, registration, emergency financial assistance, and individual support via casework. Of course, the work continues to be delivered now.
To date, our teams have conducted over 100 visits to the 24 indigenous communities that were impacted by this summer's wildfires. We are working closely with local leadership to understand how best we can support their population as they return to their new normal.
To date, these initiatives have included the following:
Around safety and well-being, obviously, we have learned a lot. Learning from other disasters has taught us the need to increase our support for mental and emotional well-being for people suffering from the psychosocial impact of evacuation.
The work continues to be done in collaboration with partners such as the B.C. health authorities, the First Nations Health Authority, INAC, and others to avoid duplication. This support extends for months and even years for those most vulnerable. We know it's a long run here.
In the area of community partnerships, community partnership grants are a vital aspect to helping communities recover. The projects are generated by local groups and reflect community priorities and culture. This support includes grants for schools, local governments, first nation bands, and community organizations to support responses and recovery. For example, we have recently approved a grant for first nation bands to assist with their costs to hunt outside their usual area as the animals have moved due to the fires. That's the typical type of support we could provide. Another example of community partnership requests from indigenous communities is for cultural gatherings and ceremonies which are, as we know, an important part of their recovery process.
Finally, there's support for small business. Another great example of how we are meeting the unique needs of indigenous communities is through our support for small business, including not-for-profit organizations, and of course, first nations in British Columbia on the inclusion of cultural livelihoods, recognizing the value in indigenous communities of individuals whose primary sources of income are cultural, artisanal, and through traditional hunting, trapping, and fishing. I'm very pleased to share that to date, over 2,900 applications have been received and over 2,100 of these applications have already been approved and processed in terms of assistance. The second phase of this program was just launched on November 20 and will continue to provide relief for small businesses and those living cultural livelihoods in a similar way to our support for individuals and families.
Obviously, lots of lessons have been learned. Again, it has been a very intense season, another one after Fort McMurray last year, and the Canadian Red Cross is obviously committed to work alongside communities before, during, and after disasters. It's a long run. We know one of the teams is still on the ground delivering services and will be there for a long time in B.C., in particular.
As part of this commitment, we are currently conducting consultations on our wildfire 2017 response with indigenous communities across all three provinces. Feedback from community members, local organizations, and other partners will help us continue to shape and adapt our programming.
We have three major recommendations. There are many others, but I just wanted to share those with you and with this committee at this time.
I will now turn to the first lesson and recommendation. The first response to any disaster is always local. It's through here; it's through international. We recommend investment in preparedness activities. We need to boost the investment in preparedness activities which would help enhance local capacity from within indigenous communities. We're doing well collectively. We believe that we can do much more again in terms of preparing communities and reducing risk and impact of future disasters.
Second, it is crucial to recognize that the diversity of indigenous communities and their individual languages, customs, cultures, and their community history, while ensuring culturally appropriate emergency preparedness tools, training, and activities. Adapting the approach to the very different nations, bands, communities across Canada is essential.
Finally, there is a need for increased collaboration with indigenous people and communities in both preparing and responding to emergencies of all kinds.
Madam Chair, and members of the committee, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today. We'll be very pleased to respond to any questions you may have.
I want to start off by recognizing we are on Algonquin unceded territory and also to thank our Creator for allowing us to be here today.
I want to thank all the members of the standing committee here, and my relatives: thank you for allowing me some time and sharing some time with me.
I'm going to stick to my notes, because it will keep the flow going. The relationship with Canada and indigenous peoples is one of the top priorities identified by the in his mandate letters to the minister. We are here today because we believe in reconciliation for the communities I represent. The rebuilding of our communities is at the heart of the reconciliation process, and effective management of emergencies and disasters in our communities is an important aspect of that.
Climate change and modern forest fire management practices are increasing the frequency of out of control fires near first nations communities. There are also changes in the scale and average duration of forest fires, particularly in the most remote areas. In 2017 alone, nearly 7,000 first nations citizens needed to be evacuated as a result of forest fires.
Last August, a forest fire started burning south of the Poplar River First Nation, a remote community on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, located 400 kilometres from Winnipeg and only accessible by boat or air. This community of 1,100 to 1,200 individuals has the shortest runway in Manitoba. The Poplar River First Nation declared a state of local emergency and evacuated on August 10, 2017.
In regard to the response and mitigation of last August's forest fire near the community, Chief Vera Mitchell stated, “It was quite a challenge to get everybody out of the community expediently due to our airstrip and airport. It took five days to get 700 people out, with about 50 flights of small aircraft which had about nine passengers, which is why the haste is needed to relocate and build an airstrip. Our airstrip is a clearing in the middle of the reserve that has limited capacity to handle aircraft. Only nine passengers can land on the runway. It's too short and is not to standard. There's no life flights for members and the freight planes are limited. There has been talk about an airstrip for 20 years and finally the province has allocated approval for the design stage, but of course it's pending a financial cost-sharing agreement with the feds. The jurisdiction of responsibility is what we always get caught in as first nations. If the last incident had been an emergency—a quick evacuation situation—it would have been a total disaster.”
Last August, the forest fires were also burning northwest of the Wasagamack First Nation area of Island Lake, rapidly increasing in size and emitting high levels of smoke, which impacted three communities.
Wasagamack First Nation, a community of 1,160 inhabitants, was heavily impacted by smoke, creating a high level of risk to the community due to fire. The fire was threatening 26 structures, the band office, and a school, which led to a declared state of emergency on August 29, 2017 and a request for evacuation. Garden Hill First Nation, a community of 2,700 individuals, was heavily impacted by the smoke and required partial community evacuation of priority health individuals; a state of local emergency was declared on August 29, 2017. Meanwhile, St. Theresa Point, a community of 2,800 people, was heavily impacted by smoke. The band requested partial evacuation for priority health individuals on August 29, 2017. Power outages were experienced in three communities due to the high density of smoke in the air, which affected power lines.
First nations emergency management is problematic, and that's a well-documented reality. There is a consensus among the main authorities concerned that first nations are not well protected to face emergencies and disasters in order to limit the harm and cost to their communities. There is also a consensus around the need for a level of protection against disaster that is equitable and comparable to what is provided to other Manitobans.
The budget of the INAC emergency management program is not sufficient, and support has focused on response and recovery activities while the preparedness of the mitigation phase of the emergency management process is neglected. The mitigation phase is particularly neglected, and most first nations communities do not have the proper infrastructure to face different types of disasters.
The preparedness phase involves all the activities that ensure that when a disaster strikes, emergency managers will be able to provide the best possible response with first nation control. In the preparedness phase, emergency managers develop plans of action to manage and counter the risks, and take action to build necessary capacities required to implement the plans. Common preparedness measures include proper maintenance and training, emergency services, the development and exercise of emergency population warning methods, preparing shelters and evacuation plans, stockpiling inventory, maintaining disaster supplies and equipment, making communication plans, and establishing a chain of command.
First nations are in the best position to prepare for disasters and best know their own respective physical and social environment and their people. With the proper resources and the partnership agreements, first nations would be most effective to take charge of the disaster preparedness phase by themselves.
The response phase involves the mobilization of necessary emergency services and the first responders in the disaster area. It includes the first wave of core emergency services. That is why the response phase is better in the hands of the local community. They are there on site to immediately apply the emergency procedures and to start the deployment of operations. Effective response is critical to save lives and prevent further damage caused by the disaster of emergency situations. It's during the response phase of emergency management that the preparedness plans are put into action. In SCO communities, the response activities may include a damage assessment; the deployment of flood equipment, such as Tiger Dams; firefighting; and the shelter of victims.
First nations and their elected band council know their people. We know best who they can rely on for the execution of a response plan. We also know best what the sheltering needs are and what the possibilities are around citizens' medication, kids' schooling, business needs. These are just a few of the considerations that first nations band elected officials are in a better position to elevate than any other organization.
How am I for time? I have three minutes. Let me get into the last part here. I'll just skip over. I need to address the Red Cross really quickly.
In December 2013, AANDC announced that the government was transferring responsibility for long-term first nation evacuees from the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters to the Canadian Red Cross. Since the Red Cross took over three years ago, first nations emergencies have represented 95% of activities in Manitoba. While we recognize and appreciate the good work of the Red Cross and the dedication of its staff and volunteers, we also see that the agency has been suffering some difficulties. This is mostly due to the fact that they are strangers to the community and the physical environment when operating on reserve.
The Red Cross is not always able to cover 24 hours due to the volunteer human-resource base. Some situations require immediate actions where communities can't wait for the Red Cross. For remote communities, the fact that the Red Cross is not on site can seriously compromise prompt and safe evacuations. The Red Cross is not always familiar with the safety plans for emergency procedures in the communities where they are mandated to provide services. Management does not always understand the first-hand needs of the communities. They do not know the communities. They are discovering and learning them as they go.
The Red Cross sometimes cannot easily identify where to find a supply for the disaster response. The agency is designed to take on so many big emergencies at once. Staff have limited knowledge and understanding of the local geography, the people, the situation, and the evacuation plans prepared by the communities. The agency doesn't always have the knowledge of the community and what its plans are. The staff get strangled by the local politics in the community. There's confusion of who is in charge in the community. There are also issues with the sheltering of our communities.
I'm going to leave it there. I think I'm going to let one of you two cover the rest because my time is up.
The Southern Chiefs' Organization's vision for emergency management is that southern first nations in Manitoba would like to develop and be in control of their own emergency command centre, with proper operational needs-based funding. Our southern first nations would like the funding of this emergency command centre to be under the disaster management program of Public Safety, not INAC. This command centre would have the mandate of coordinating the action plan to address all current deficiencies when it comes to dealing with emergencies in first nations communities. This institution would enable us to get the flood and fire issues under control. It would be aligned with one of the main recommendations from the Auditor General of Canada on emergency preparedness.
In conclusion, we're here presenting to the indigenous affairs standing committee today because, as Grand Chief Daniels said, we believe in the reconciliation process. We recognize that there has been a history of wrongdoing in our relationship with Canada. There have been harms caused to our nations by the assimilation policy. They remain today, but times have changed. Legal and political contexts have evolved a lot. Because of that, we believe it's in the best economic and financial interests of the federal government to work with us to face the changing legal and international political contexts, including in regard to emergency management.
We lived under our own survival, policing, and legal systems. Now we're looking to rebuild our communities and to build those systems up again. For us, the rebuilding of our communities and our social and physical infrastructure is at the core of the reconciliation process. Again, emergency management is part of that process. In our discussions with Canada, we wish it to be understood that for whatever it is—education, health, housing, or emergency management—southern first nations in Manitoba require funding assistance based on needs and to control, manage, and design our own service and programming. We will continue to work on the reconciliation effort with Canada and to take part in reconciliation discussions and activities.
To this end, the main message our chiefs asked us to deliver to this committee today is this: one, provide us with the proper funding level to rebuild the physical and social infrastructures needed in our communities, including for emergency management; and two, give us the control to do so.
In conclusion, we really were the first Red Cross of this country when we welcomed newcomers to this country and we accommodated them. The proof is in the international Selkirk treaty.
I'm Elder McLean. My name is Garry McLean.
Mr. Kevin Waugh: Yes, that's right.
Mr. Garry McLean: [Witness speaks in Saulteaux]
That wasn't French. That was Saulteaux, Ojibway territory.
As elders, we're taught to respect all of you people here, because all of you are our brothers and our sisters. We respect that.
As you know, in Canada, we have roughly 220 isolated first nations communities in Canada. In Manitoba, we have 22. In our region, we have four. In the southeast, with 32 communities, four are isolated communities.
In those communities, the Manitoba firefighters association was set up to do brush fires in the early nineties. They were only funded to do brush fires. In Manitoba, when the flood in 1997 came, we weren't affected until two months after. Morris was affected in the spring. The water doesn't get to our communities until two months or three months after, so often we have time to prepare.
The problem that we have, of course, is with the region. I mean, emergency funding for the department of Indian affairs is very limited. It's very low in Canada, and not just in Manitoba but in Canada.
I think, as a committee, if you're going to make recommendations to the finance minister, those are the things you need to include. We have plans in place. We've presented some of those to the region, but the region is stuck with things too. As you know, there's roughly $10 billion in Canada. Manitoba gets around $1.6 billion to be spread out in 63 communities. That doesn't include new emergencies. That's the problem we have. With anything over $500,000, you have to go to the Treasury Board, and that causes difficulty. The first nations are not allowed to come directly to the Treasury Board; we have to go through the region, and that's the problem.
Mr. Kevin Waugh: Thanks, Garry.