[Witness speaks in Shuswap
My name is Ann Louie. I'm the chief of the Williams Lake Indian Band. We're part of the Secwepemc organization. I will be presenting the events that occurred for us on July 7 and the following month.
The fire started in our community at approximately 3 p.m. due to a lightning strike. There were issues with trying to get through to report fires. Many community members also had issues with calling in to report the fire, as the Cariboo Fire Centre was apparently overwhelmed during the 148 lightning strikes that day. When staff got through, they would be referred to another agency. During that time, there were automated answering machines which were of no assistance, and 911 was actually glitching out at this time.
Williams Lake Band has an agreement with the 150 Mile House centre, which was also overwhelmed. I sat in my vehicle making calls as well during this time, which I found extremely frustrating. I reached the CRD director chair, who told me then that I was in a better position to make a decision because I could see what was happening.
There should have been a person from the fire centre with expertise sent out to assess the situation, which was not done at any time. As chief of the community, I sat outside my band office with many community members who stayed, watching the aggressive fire coming over the hill within a very short period of time. People were beginning to panic, and I directed them to leave the community for their safety. Some had already left through back roads on the opposite side of the lake from the fire. This was at approximately 6 p.m., three hours after the fire began.
While this was happening, community members began going to Highway 97. They were then turned back by the RCMP who had the road blocked. They came back and told me this, and just then an RCMP officer in a pick-up truck came up to me while I was in the vehicle still trying to make calls. I said to him, “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys now have us blocked in.” His response was, “No, I don't think so.” I said, “Yes, you do. Our people are going up to the highway and being turned back.” He said “I will go check” and left.
He went up to the main highway and within a couple of minutes came back down with his red and blue lights flashing. Then he said, “They can get through now.” By this time, the vehicles were lined up to the bridge past the main reserve, which included people from the Onward Ranch. Then they were allowed to leave the community by the highway to get to a registration centre at the Ramada Inn in Williams Lake.
We received assistance from Jeff Eustache of First Nations' Emergency Service Society on Sunday, July 9, and for the week following this. We will be forever grateful to him. He came in and assisted staff in setting up the required documents and contacts for us to deal with the ongoing emergency. We did not get proper assistance from forestry until day three after the fire started, even though the Caribou Fire Centre is less than 10 kilometres from our community, right over the hill, and the fire was only a couple of kilometres from the fire centre.
I went to a meeting at the fire centre, which involved INAC regional director general Catherine Lappe, Grand Chief Ed John, Robert Chamberlin from UBCIC, chiefs, and me, where I stated the above. I also let them know that our community members were fighting the fire with garden hoses and shovels and that we required support. I asked for piss cans and fire hoses for the fire to be fought properly. I also let them know that we had lost a house during the night and that we would have lost a lot more had our community members not returned to the community during the night to fight the fire.
Cantex were contractors working on Highway 97 doing four-laning. They were also instrumental in firefighting and saving our businesses and one house along the highway corridor. Members of the fire centre said, “You do have an agreement with the 150 department. Obviously, they were not able to assist you. We can now assist with structural integrity, which we will set up.” One of the other chiefs said to me, “Why did it have to come to you saying you lost a house before you were offered anything?”
Further to the above, we were categorized as an alert rather than an evacuation, which caused us many more issues for getting assistance with food and accommodation for our members. They also listed the fire as “human-caused”. I demanded they change this, as it was not accurate.
These two situations alone caused our members to not get assistance until the night before the city of Williams Lake was evacuated, which was one week later. We had three separate meetings at Williams Lake, where the reception centre was, on July 14, trying to get proper assistance for community members who were being turned away.
We were also informed that there were no forms there. It was eventually Dave Dixon from the community policing who told me, “Chief Ann, go back up there. I guarantee you, the forms are there.” I sent out the information to members, and we began getting food vouchers that night until about 7:30. Many community members were not able to use their vouchers, as the city of Williams Lake was then evacuated the very next day.
The improper classification of the fire evacuation caused ongoing issues, and the Williams Lake Indian Band's mailing address being under the city of Williams Lake along with the postal codes also caused confusion with the Red Cross assistance, because of the city being evacuated one week later than the Williams Lake Indian Band.
The results of all of the above have caused so many ongoing issues that we recommend strongly that we be engaged at all levels of planning in the future. It brought to light for us that, as first nations, we are totally invisible when these events occur. The municipal, regional district, and provincial levels all have funding to respond. First nations were totally forgotten during this crisis, and it was not until we asserted ourselves that we were included in the ongoing follow-up calls and planning meetings. The province must ensure that we are involved in all planning in the future.
We had to request funding from the RDG to assist us with the ongoing work that resulted due to the wildfires. Fortunately for us, Catherine Lappe, RDG of INAC, responded quickly to this request.
We have stated that we require an emergency fund to be set up for first nations in the amount of $200 million, to deal with all future emergencies that occur. We are now demanding emergency planning funding, integrations with local governments, fire prevention funding for fuel management, interface projects, and equipment for fire prevention.
We are now faced with huge economic impacts, such as a delay to a major project we were dealing with in building the Coyote Rock development along the highway; reduction in our land value due to visual impacts and reduced recreational value; challenges for business attractions, retention, and tourism; loss of our forestry resource—approximately 350,000 cubic metres on Williams Lake Indian Band and private lands; loss for our forestry company in our territory; and forestry effects on hydrology, drainage, wildlife habitat, and heritage sites.
In terms of social impacts, many have been traumatized by the fire, and elders and others have been displaced. Some members and a lot of non-members have also left their communities. We are now left to deal with educating the community about emergency response, fire prevention, ensuring that assets are properly insured, and assisting those who had insurance in dealing with insurance companies, who in some cases are being unrealistic and demanding receipts for items as far back as 40 years. An individual who was a mechanic was expected to have receipts for tools he had purchased several years ago.
With all of the above, it will be years before we can have a feeling that we are returning to any normal situation within our community.
We have held recent meetings with the ministers in B.C. to discuss some of the issues. As a result, in the last couple of days, for the first time ever, we received an invitation from the provincial firefighting training program to be included in training prior to the fire season. This has been great news for first nations in the Cariboo.
That's the end of my presentation, but I just need to say again that it's been an extremely painful experience for our community.
[Witness speaks in Secwepemctsin
My name is Ryan Day. I'm the chief of Bonaparte Indian Band, also part of the Secwepemc Nation. We're located about an hour west of Kamloops, B.C.
I'll speak to a few things that are similar to those that Kukpi7 Ann spoke about, but we have a little bit of different circumstances. I'll also talk a little bit about solutions and moving forward.
On July 7 there was a fire in our neighbouring community of the Ashcroft Indian Band, or just outside of their reserve. I heard about it at around 12:30 in the afternoon. By three o'clock that fire was on our doorstep—and we're about 10 miles away—because it was extremely windy that day. We had no time to prepare, but we had enough people with the wherewithal in our community to evacuate everyone who wasn't going to stay and fight the fire. We got our handful of hoses and just got ready for the flames.
I should note that we didn't have an emergency plan to enact, but we had enough people with experience so that we got organized pretty quickly. Our reservoir can be used to fight fire for about 20 minutes at the most, so we were in an extremely precarious situation with virtually no supplies. These were not young fellows either. These guys with the firefighting experience are in their sixties.
We were able to stop the fire from wiping out our community. There were walls of flames coming down both sides of the highway, but we were able to do some strategic burns at just the right moment and stop the fire from wiping out our community. We lost one home, but it was derelict and hadn't been used for quite a number of years, so we were lucky that was the only real damage that happened there.
We have three populated reserves, and our main reserve we evacuated right away. Then we also evacuated a second reserve just because of the winds and the unpredictable nature of the fire. We were able to bring people home after a couple of weeks but then had to evacuate again because some inexperienced forest firefighters who were doing a back-burn did not understand the winds in the area, and the fire actually came back onto our community from the back-burn, so we had to evacuate again for another couple of weeks.
At any rate, that was kind of the nature of the fire. We just did what we needed to do without a real plan, although you wouldn't know it because we did so well. As Kukpi7 Ann mentioned, we would have been invisible as well had we not asserted ourselves and had some help from First Nations' Emergency Services Society as well through that experience.
As she mentioned, it was very traumatizing for our people, both those who were evacuated and those who stayed back, but at the same time we did an extremely good job of coping with that. I will talk shortly about our ability to cope with compounded trauma.
That is an extremely brief review. To give some context, the fire burned more than half of the territory that my band depends on for our subsistence living. We are caretakers of the Bonaparte River watershed, and well over half of the Bonaparte watershed was razed to the ground, so we're in pretty dire straits moving forward as well.
I'll try to break it down into three parts: prevention, managing the crisis, and post-crisis.
In terms of prevention, many of our reserves, not just my community but others, were surrounded by forest and we need to do the field management that Kukpi7 Ann mentioned. We need to have sustained funding in order to do that, and to ensure that the forests that surround our communities are doing fuel reduction and that there aren't huge hazards there. We can do that work. We have the experienced firefighters. It would be good to have a bit of training and some equipment to do that each year. We do grass fires around our homes every year on our own, but that needs to be expanded into the surrounding forests. That will help a bit. Prevention is really everything.
The other thing with prevention is that the province has mismanaged the forest for many decades. We can create some buffers around our communities directly on reserve, but the problem is that the forest is a mess around our reserves as well. The province needs to be held to account for that, because it creates a liability. It creates a liability for our communities and infrastructure, and it creates a liability for the department.
The province is doing another study. They did the Filmon report back in 2003, and they didn't implement what was needed and what was discussed there. They're going to do another study, but they need to be held to account.
I don't know if the angle that needs to be taken is that they've created a liability for all of our communities and need to be doing their part in terms of mitigating that liability. We can do that together. Because our people are used to doing the fuel management and so on, we can do that for them.
In terms of managing the crisis or managing disasters, as you know, with nearly ever sector, there are jurisdictional issues. We've definitely had big jurisdictional problems on our reserves and in our neighbouring communities. Disasters like this, fires and floods, are landscape-level disasters, and they're regional.
To illustrate what we need at a regional level, I'll give the example of a war chief. In wartime, the peace chief steps aside and is no longer responsible for what goes on. The war chief is activated in times of war because he's an expert. The same thing should go for emergencies. For our communities, for neighbouring communities, when a state of emergency is called, there's a whole subset of people who are then activated in order to deal with that crisis. They are experts who are trained and who maintain relationships with one another so that when an emergency happens there's no wasted time, no inefficient communication. They're ready to go so that lives are not lost and so that less damage occurs.
That was an issue we had. We had to deal with the regional district—a bunch of mayors who know nothing about the land, who know nothing about emergencies. In the same way, I'm not an expert in emergencies, yet I was required to do a bunch that I shouldn't have been doing. It was really helpful that I had the emergency services person to help me out, but what we really need in the community is an emergency chief, and a regional plan that gets activated when a state of emergency is called, where everybody's on the same playing field and is used to working with one another.
What we found was that because we have so much knowledge of the land, the winds, and the hills, when it came to a fire, we were the most valuable asset out there in terms of knowledge. When it came to an emergency, there was a respect between the firefighters we had and the ones from the province and elsewhere. In my mind, that's one thing that needs to happen. We need to have that annual funding, not just to have a plan but to keep that plan updated and to practise doing drills for floods, and so on and so forth. That is critical.
In terms of evacuations, we had a lot of problems with racism. When people are evacuated, the volunteer pool is typically the pool of the town, or whatever. Unfortunately, racism is a problem that's not going to be solved overnight, so we need our own people, our own teams to deal with our evacuees. We need them to perhaps come from outside the region in order to help out.
I see I need to begin wrapping up.
[Witness speaks in Cree]
It's a real honour to be here this morning. I recognize that we're on Algonquin territory.
Madam Chair, honourable committee members, I am thankful for the opportunity to be here this morning to talk about the impacts of the wildfires in northen Saskatchewan.
[ Witness speaks in Cree]
My name is Tammy Cook-Searson. I am an elected member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. I have served my community for 20 years as a band councillor, and as chief for the last five terms. I am a fluent Cree speaker. I was raised on the family trapline, and along with my wider community, we continue to rely on our physical and mental and social well-being. We hunt elk, moose, deer. We fish, we trap, and we harvest plants for medicines and food.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band is the largest first nation in Saskatchewan. We are the 10th-largest band in Canada out of 633 first nations. Our population as of last week was 10,911. That's how many band members we have. We are part of Treaty 6. Our treaty was signed on February 11, 1889. We're situated in north central Saskatchewan on the edge of the Precambrian Shield. Usually, our traditional territories are based on how the traplines were separated in the 1930s. Lac La Ronge Indian Band is comprised of six separate communities and 19 reserve lands that cover over 107,000 acres of reserve lands.
Two years ago, during the summer of 2015, our communities experienced an unprecedented number of wildfires that resulted in the largest evacuation effort in Saskatchewan's history. It made national and international news. The fire season began like any other year during the month of May. However, by the first week of June, there were 25 new fires caused by hot weather, dry conditions, and lightning resulted in a fire situation that we had never experienced before.
Given the intensity of the fire and smoke, we began calling states of emergency beginning on June 6. Our first communities impacted were Sikichew Lake and Clam Lake Bridge, and there a family lost their home as a result of the wildfires. From June 6 until July 4, all of our communities were impacted, including the surrounding communities of La Ronge, the town of La Ronge, and the village of Air Ronge. We were evacuating people in different stages, whether it was because of smoke or fire. Nobody returned home until July 22. It was a long drawn-out evacuation, and it was the largest disaster we had ever experienced in our living memory.
I've been asked here to speak as a witness to this event, and I would like to present the concerns that were related to the provincial emergency response and its effect on health and safety of our members. However, before I continue, I want to first acknowledge the efforts of our partners and supporters.
It was truly humbling how everyone came together during our time of need. There were all of the front-line workers and staff, including the firefighters, first responders, RCMP, Saskatchewan wildfire management, Saskatchewan emergency management, Red Cross, emergency social services, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Health Canada, Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority and Mamawetan Churchill River Health Region, Prince Albert Grand Council and first nations, as well as other teams of volunteers, and many other supporters and stakeholders.
It was an incredibly trying and difficult time for the evacuees, yet our community members, who are known for their resilience, managed to make the most of the situation with the support of many. For this, I am thankful. At the present time, the Northern Inter-tribal Health Authority is finalizing a report that captures first-hand accounts and experiences from key stakeholders. That includes interviews from many of our elected officials, elders, community health resources, and community evacuees, as well as the federal and provincial government agencies' management and responses.
Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority represents Meadow Lake Tribal Council, Prince Albert Grand Council, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. As part of the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, one of the recommendations is there needs to be formalized processes and policies as to how a state of emergency is declared and what is expected and anticipated.
For example, with regard to funding policies, unlike urban or rural municipalities that leverage land tax revenues to support emergency management policies and response activities, we rely on INAC funding through federal funding programs and services. In most cases, our communities don't have the reserve capacity to cover interim expenses related to emergency planning and response, and we are unclear as to how, and how quickly, financial assistance can be accessed from the federal government.
In 2015 we spent over $800,000. We were eventually reimbursed, but it took almost one year and many meetings. When the provincial response was mobilized, it became clear that their capability and capacity were quickly overwhelmed because there were 13,000 evacuees.
We had established emergency response plans and our community leaders were well versed on their roles and responsibilities during this time of crisis, yet they were interacting with provincial responders and there was a lack of defined process and no clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, which made it disorganized and sometimes chaotic. This meant we needed to take action in advance of receiving a clear response from the province. We found that once evacuees began leaving the communities, there were no established processes to track where they were or how to maintain communication with them.
One of the other main concerns was over the lack of defined roles and responsibilities in the area of communications and the coordination of provincial activities. We believe that we could have provided valuable support in these areas. In fact, there were many instances where first nations wanted to support one another in need. Several first nation communities and organizations established support services for evacuees in community centres, gyms, halls, and other facilities to provide food, shelter, clothing, and safe harbour for evacuees where the provincial response had not reached them or was not able to provide for them.
That's why, as a result of the overload of the situation on the Red Cross, we failed to understand why the offer for help, for accommodation, from other first nations was denied. There were no applicable governance policies that described what the requirements were for a community to be approved as a host community. What needs to be done for that change?
During this time the Prince Albert Grand Council filled in the gaps as a critical resource for the province. It established information, services, and a resource centre to feed and support evacuees as well as volunteers. Shelter and food were also provided to 80 wildfire management crew members after their camp was destroyed. This represents one of many examples of first nations' capabilities and capacities.
We also know there is a wealth of certified, skilled, and local first nations expertise, such as first responders, firefighters, nurses, food handlers, and equipment operators who can enhance provincial emergency response capacity.
It was greatly appreciated that the government brought the Canadian Forces to La Ronge during 2015; however, we had many experienced local firefighters who were evacuated and weren't allowed...by the province because they needed to be recertified. At one point the province said that they would be trained and hired, but they ended up waiting day after day, week after week, at the shelters, anxious and frustrated that they weren't called in.
We commend the efforts of the Red Cross and the emergency social services, yet there is room for improvement, change, and collaboration. Different processes might have been considered when understanding that elders felt the evacuation process reminded them that they were taken away to the Indian residential schools and how it triggered traumatic memories from when they were forced onto buses, separated from families, waited in long lines, took instruction from strange authorities, and bunked in congregate shelters.
At the same time, we are thankful for the leadership of Alex Campbell, the regional director general for the first nations and Inuit health branch. He helped us move our elders—
[Witness speaks in Secwepemctsin
Thank you for honouring me to do a presentation here.
I am Chief Ron Ignace, from the Skeetchestn community, which is part of the Shuswap Nation. My fellow Shuswap chiefs were up on the screen there.
I also want to recognize the owners of this land here that I am on and thank them for giving us the opportunity to talk together.
One of the questions I saw you asking was, what went well during the fire? For us, nothing. My fellow chiefs up there, I believe I heard them say they were invisible. So were we.
I found out by accident, 10 days down the road, that the local authorities had asked the RCMP to go and give a fire emergency notice around all the non-native communities surrounding our reserve, but we were left out of the loop.
I happened to go down to our gas station. There were six RCMP in the store. They were sitting there and I said, “What have we done wrong here?” They said, “Oh no, we are going out and giving notices of fire alerts.” I said, “When did that happen?” They said, “Oh, it's been a few days now.” I immediately turned and went up to our band office. I notified them that there was an alert going on around there, and we decided that.... We were angry because we weren't notified. We weren't brought into the loop. We were invisible, just as the other Shuswap communities were invisible.
We are still invisible today. John Horgan has called in two west coast native people to advise him on the fire in the interior. I have nothing against our west coast people. They are my brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, they weren't anywhere near the fire. We were best able to advise them.
So we took matters into our own hands. We were fortunate that the fire started over in Ashcroft reserve and went to Cache Creek, in that direction, before it came to us, and we had time to prepare.
We took every opportunity. To begin, we set up our own incident commander pre-op program and got organized. We organized all the various departments of our community. Our finance department kept track of all the finances, all the expenditures, and the hours of work that people were doing—community workers, carpenters, truck drivers—to begin amassing all the vehicles and machinery that we needed, the Cats. We even loaded up four-by-four trucks so we could do guerrilla warfare, mobilize and fight the fire with the trucks.
When the sparks were coming down on our non-native communities up the valley, we drove our trucks up there. We put out the fires like that. We engaged all the communities around us, whether they were native or non-native, to come to our meetings. We talked about the fire, planning how we could fight the fire together. We were fortunate.
Once we found out that there was this imminent danger forthcoming, we began—I'll put it in a nice way—reaching out to the RCMP. We began reaching out to the Red Cross, to FNESS, and to the incident commander. There was a big firefighting camp situated in Cache Creek, with 300 firefighters. I went there and introduced myself to the incident commander. I began talking to him and explaining what was happening to us here. We developed relationships. We had our own emergency operation centre established, which we moved out of the danger of the fire, but we maintained our incident commander.
I and 32 other people stayed behind in the community, once we decided to evacuate the community.
I, along with our social workers, our personnel, went to the evacuation centre in Kamloops. I met with all the people in there, introduced them, and told them that our people were coming so they would be aware of them. I told them that we had elders, that we wanted to keep our people together and not scattered all over, and that if there were hotel rooms required for the elders, we would much appreciate that. We developed a great rapport.
The problem was not with those people. We developed a great rapport and a great working relationship once we built two-way bridges. The problem was with the federal and provincial governments. They had signed a MOU, an emergency operation agreement between the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations Leadership Council of B.C.
The First Nations Leadership Council of B.C. is our provincial organization. They're not statutory decision-makers. We are. We make decisions about ourselves. They're just a lobby group for us. But here they were expected to make decisions about things that they knew nothing about. We didn't exist as a result of that. They existed in an ethereal world, so to speak.
I went reaching out, and I found out that the Cache Creek fire camp needed a place to move to. They were looking for a place because the school was starting up in September. I told them to come to my community, my reserve lands, on the highway. We have 5,000 acres of highway frontage land; that's flat land. I invited them over. They came and set up camp on our reserve. I figured, “Wow, we have a good fire insurance here.”
When they came, I, my councillors, and our tribal chair went down there, and we had a welcoming ceremony for them, an honouring ceremony. We did smudging. We did an honour song for them, a welcome song for them. As we finished smudging, I turned around and there was a whole line of firefighters wanting to be smudged as well. We told them about the history of the land, the importance of the land, and the significance of the land.
When I first got there, there were 300 firefighters, individually, looking to fight a fire they knew nothing about. After we finished, I tell you, the atmosphere was transformative. There were 300 firefighters that were fighting like a firefighting team that had a vision and a mission to accomplish. They invited us in. They said, “Come in and work with us.” We did.
One of our guys was with the natural resources department, and we would send him out to the mountains every day to track with GPS exactly where the fire was. They had infrared mapping that gave them an approximation of where the fires were. We would tell them exactly where to put the firebreaks. We built firebreaks all around our reserve. It's about an eight kilometre stretch of reserve boundary. We put in a firebreak of about 12 kilometres, plus others that we put in. We brought in Cats and dozers. We had to straighten and make roads wider so that the larger equipment could get through.
It was amazing. The incident commander came to check out what we were doing. He couldn't believe how organized we were and what equipment and machinery we had. They brought in the people who put fire sprinklers on your house. They came in, and within one day they had all the fire sprinklers on every house, on all our buildings. It was through that type of opening up of relations that we were able to accomplish that.
Mega fires are now a new normal. This fire that we had here is just the beginning. The mother of all fires has yet to come—I tell you that. Climate change adds fuel to wildfire flames. As was told, up there our traditional food sources have already been severely impacted. There are few Secwepemc alternatives to our traditional foods. I'm telling the provincial forestry department that they have to stop managing their fire for fibre. They have to begin managing it for water, and we are going to start using our traditional knowledge of how to manage the forest with fire.
I'm going out to look for Smokey the bear and put his hide up on a wall, because he has it all wrong.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for this opportunity to appear before you to talk about these very important issues.
I want to start off by acknowledging that we are on unceded territory of the Algonquin people. I thank the leadership and the members of that nation for welcoming us into their territory.
My name is Alvin Fiddler. I'm the grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. The Nishnawbe Aski Nation represents 49 first nations in northeastern and northwestern Ontario, on Treaty No. 9 and part of Treaty No. 5 land.
Loss of lives to house fires is something that has hit us hard during the course of our history. I want to mention one community very quickly, which is Mishkeegogamang. Since 1980 they've recorded over 30 lives lost to house fires, and we hear about other tragic incidents that have occurred in our territory over the course of NAN's existence.
One of the things that really shook us up was what happened in Pigangkum in March 2016 in one house fire. In that one tragic event, nine lives were lost. The youngest victim in that house fire was named Amber Strang. Amber was just five months old. Three generations of one family were lost in that one tragic event.
About a month and a half later, our chiefs from NAN gathered in Timmins and they passed a motion directing the NAN executive to launch a campaign named in Amber's memory, Amber's Fire Safety Campaign. They were very direct with us in terms of what they wanted to see. They wanted to see some immediate things happen in the communities to protect our families from house fires.
One of the things they told us to do was to install a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide detector in every home in the NAN territory. They said to go to every home to ensure—because many of our homes are still heated by wood stoves—that the wood stoves are clean, that they're working properly, that the chimneys are clean, and that there's proper shielding around the walls where the wood stoves are located.
They also identified some long-term issues that they wanted us to work on. These included things like proper infrastructure to ensure that our communities have fire hydrants and that they have access to water in the event of a fire. They wanted us to look at building garages to have fire trucks, and to have trained personnel, volunteers on the ground, who could do this work.
I'm here today with Mike McKay. Mike is our infrastructure director at the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Also with me is one of our partners, Chief John Hay from the Thunder Bay Fire Department.
We recognized when we began this work that we needed partners. We cannot do this by ourselves. We need municipalities, and I'm thankful for John's leadership and help. We need the federal government. We need Ontario to make this a sustainable and comprehensive campaign. It has to be a permanent campaign. It cannot be just a one-year, two-year, or three-year campaign. It has to be permanent, because the threats are there every day in our communities because of the way our houses are built, because of the way they're heated, and because of the general living conditions in our communities.
The risks are high and we see that in the stats. There are 10 times more lives lost in our communities than in the rest of the country. So the threats are real. The issues that we submitted to you are real.
I wanted to give a few moments for both Mike and John to speak to some of the specifics we are asking you to consider as members of the standing committee. We need your support to make this a sustainable campaign. It has to be a comprehensive one. We need buy-in from all parties. We need support from everyone to ensure this works for our communities. We have a detailed plan. I'm not sure if any other region in the country has that, but we're organized; we're ready. We have the capacity. We will need some help to continue to build our capacity in our communities, but we are ready to roll this out, because it's very important to us.
It's very difficult to go to one of our communities and go to a funeral. I remember when I was in Pikangikum for that. There were nine caskets in the church. The smallest one was Amber's. It's at those moments that you have to say to yourself that something needs to change. We cannot lose any more lives.
The fundamental issue that I find in our communities is the lack of standards, the lack of any type of code for our communities to meet. I was at a meeting just this morning with Minister Ralph Goodale on policing. Again, it's lack of standards. Everything is program-based. These programs are endangering the lives of our communities, and in some cases, killing our community members.
I want to give a few moments to Mike and John.
Sure, Madam Chair, and then perhaps if you have a commitment....
First of all, thank you to all the witnesses. Each one of you had so much to tell us. I too feel it was unfortunate that the bells got in the way of what is our normal time frame.
I think there are two places I want to go to.
First of all, I do have to acknowledge Chief Ignace from my area. One of the reasons I'm so glad he could come and join us is his story about how he introduced some of the cultural pieces. The people were from Mexico, I think, and from all over. I thought it was something that we needed to learn from.
Also, I've worked in the emergency social service centres, and what I realized was that you can quickly train someone to work in those centres. The fact is that we didn't take people from the communities that were being evacuated and say to them, “Listen, you know your people and you know your elders, and it's a two-hour training program, so can we get you trained up so that you can do that work in the emergency support centre?”
Chief Ignace, could you talk a bit about that element?
Then, if I have time, I have a last question for everyone. There has been a lot of talk about the creation of a national indigenous fire marshal's office. I want to hear just quickly from everyone if you support that idea or not.