Good afternoon, everyone. I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 24 of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
We are gathered here today on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation.
We are continuing our fourth study today, which is about Arctic Sovereignty, Security and the Emergency Preparedness of Indigenous Peoples.
On today's first panel we will be hearing from Mr. Robert Huebert from the University of Calgary; from Sara Brown, CEO, Northwest Territories Association of Communities; and from Mayor Nick Daigneault from the northern Village of Beauval.
I would like to remind you of the Board of Internal Economy's requirements regarding physical distancing and the wearing of masks.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules for us to follow. Members or witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services in English, French and Inuktitut are available for the first part of today’s meeting. Please be patient with the interpretation. There may be a delay, especially since the Inuktitut has to be translated into English first before being translated into French, and vice versa.
The interpretation button is found at the bottom of your screen, in either English or French, or Inuktitut. If interpretation is lost, please inform me immediately and we'll attend to it and pause for a bit.
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As a reminder, all comments should be addressed through the chair.
Members, please direct your question, otherwise, if it's assumed to be for all three witnesses, there may be a long pause, because nobody knows who should start.
Without further ado, we will hear from the first panel.
For the benefit of the witnesses, you will have five minutes each to make opening remarks, and then we'll proceed with a question period.
Without further ado, I would ask Professor Robert Huebert from the University of Calgary to kick us off.
Professor Huebert, you have five minutes.
First of all, let me tell you what an honour it is, and how intimidating, to come before such an august body in this regard to talk about such a critically important topic. I have two sets of comments to offer in my first five minutes.
The first is, of course, the traditional addressing of what we mean by sovereignty and security as they pertain to emergency preparedness and the indigenous peoples of the north. One of the big problems that we face whenever we have any discussions about sovereignty is that it is one of those terms that everybody uses, but very few people really understand what it means.
Sovereignty, of course, refers to the ability of a government to control a specific land mass and maritime region. For the Arctic context that means the control of the maritime zones; that means the internal waters of the Northwest Passage. We will be having a sovereignty issue coming forward with regard to the continental shelf. As it pertains to the roles of the indigenous peoples, we are going to have to be dealing with the terms of sovereignty as they pertain to the land claim settlement regions and what that means in terms of control, particularly of maritime navigation through the Northwest Passage.
In terms of security, we talk of two things. We talk about human security, which of course many of the preceding experts have addressed, and we also talk about the issue of—
We have the issue of sovereignty and security. The security that I want to talk about is the security that is often overlooked in our discussions of emergency preparedness, which is military security.
The reality is that the issues in Ukraine have illustrated one of the greatest dangers that we have pretended have disappeared, which is the possibility of nuclear war. We have heard this several times coming from President Putin as he made threats to NATO and the NATO members, and it is a threat that we need to take seriously as it pertains to emergency preparedness. Once again, many people will say, “Well, it has a very low probability,” but the reality is that before the pandemic hit us, the possibility of a disease that would kill over 27,000 Canadians and have the impacts that it has had was, of course, viewed as a low probability.
Putin has not only threatened nuclear war. He has built the necessary weapon delivery systems and weapons to carry it out. A scenario is very easy to come up with. He is losing the war in Ukraine. He wants to hit the resupply regions. In doing so, before he hits them with the tactical nuclear weapons that he has, he has to blind the Americans. To blind the Americans, he has to hit the airbases in Anchorage and he has to hit the Tully radar sites. That presents Canada with a very real and explicit threat.
In terms of emergency planning, that means that we need to be able to deal with the Arctic and with the indigenous peoples and their communities, which would no longer have communications. The EMP blast that would occur in such a strike means that any electronics would be down. The Russians also have the capability of cutting all cables, so those communications would be down. This would be a long-term cut, and it would be a problem that the southern sections also have to deal with in Canada.
The other parts that we have not prepared for in Canada are any form of emergency preparation for the residual radio activity that would inevitably occur. We used to have plans during the Cold War, when we recognized a similar threat. In 2022, most of these plans are either non-existent, or are so old as to not be practical.
I come back to the point that this is a low probability, but as we have experienced through the pandemic, to not be prepared for the very worst means it will only become that much worse in our overall context.
Moving ahead, we of course have to be able to begin and prepare for the existential threat that climate change will present for all Canadians, but northern Canadians and northern indigenous peoples, in particular. At the same time, we also have to prepare for the threat and the possibility of a limited nuclear exchange. It is unfortunate, but it is something that I think the evidence is increasingly pointing to.
Thank you very much.
My name is Sara Brown and I represent the NWT Association of Communities. I thank you for this opportunity to speak to you. We represent all 33 communities in the NWT, and as such we are planning to discuss four key areas.
First of all, the use of smart military investment is the backbone for building the new north. This relates to some of what Mr. Huebert was saying earlier. Certainly all of the aggression in Ukraine is creating angst about Arctic sovereignty for residents of the NWT. It's been raised in the press and in the legislative assembly.
Canada devotes fewer resources to the protection of northern and Arctic regions than does any other major power in the world. Russia's most recent assertion of national interest at the North Pole has already caused general concerns in the NWT, and the actions in Ukraine have increased this concern.
We need to leverage military investment. This would lay the foundation for sustained growth and prosperity in northern communities while supporting Canada's long-term economic and military interests in the region. We need a vision for the north that integrates an increased military presence with building healthier communities, protecting the environment and diversifying the regional economies. This includes projects like the extension of the runway in Inuvik.
The pandemic has recently highlighted the north's vulnerability due to telecommunications challenges, whether in terms of online schooling, telehealth or virtual meetings. The development of a more robust communications network could not only assist the military and assert sovereignty but also greatly assist communities in enjoying a level of service that the rest of Canada takes for granted.
These conflicts have potential to recast the north as we know it and to bring about dramatic and wide-ranging change. The convergence of these issues has reawakened national interest in the north. The role and effect of these transformations on northern communities must now be part of the federal decision-making process.
Second is to develop a long-term plan to invest in northern infrastructure. Canada needs to provide the funding to build the infrastructure necessary to sustain communities and support new industry, tourism, research and military activities. Recent federal investments are helping, but they are not enough to build the modern infrastructure and transportation linkages that northern communities need to grow stronger and be more secure. In particular, these investments need to respond to indigenous aspirations in the north. These include investments in hydro and all-weather roads. Every effort must be made to complete these projects using local resources and contractors.
Third, we need to make Canada's north the world leader in climate change adaptation. Like the rest of Canada, NWT communities have been experiencing increased risk from wildfires, and ice jams have been causing unprecedented flooding for the last several years. For the second year in a row we have seen large and small communities alike impacted in ways they never have been before. Communities are responsible for providing the first layer of response during an emergency, but communities are going to require more and more support from the territorial and federal governments moving forward. Further, there is a need to clarify roles in communities in terms of community and indigenous governments.
Massive environmental change has the Arctic emerging as the poster child for the real-world impact of climate change. Northern communities have so many more and different risks from climate change than southern Canada does. They're not limited to flooding and wildfire but also include permafrost thaw, melting winter roads, eroding river banks, thawing coastlines, extreme weather, reduced access to the land, overland flow, and the list goes on.
The costs from only a few of these risks has been articulated. For example, the cost of decay of permafrost on public infrastructure is in the order of $1.3 billion, or $51 million per year. This is outside the capabilities of both community and the territorial governments, and this is just one risk and only public infrastructure.
Climate change funding to date has focused on data collection and design. It has been hugely oversubscribed in the NWT, and we have been focused on treating traditional and local knowledge with respect. There's soon going to be a need for far greater amounts as we head into the capital phases of adaptation and communities attempt to take a proactive approach.
Canada has the opportunity to make sure that the north is a world leader in climate change adaptation, and we have done recent work to demonstrate that the greatest economic stimulus from dollars spent is at a community level. Every $1 million spent by federal, territorial and community levels creates six, seven and 13 jobs respectively. This clearly demonstrates the benefits of providing funding through community governments. Further, this leads to developing and fostering northern capacity.
The longer we work on the climate change file, the more it has become evident that tackling climate change through risk-based partnerships is really the best approach. This leads to recommendation number four, which is to make partnerships official policy. Leaving community and indigenous governments to try to become experts in and to tackle the various challenges on their own is unrealistic. Further, it leads to much duplication.
We have used the risk-based partnership a couple of times, first, working to do a geotechnical review of the community assets of the seven communities most vulnerable to permafrost thaw. This has proven an effective approach, with a lower burden on the community, and the data can be aggregated. We have more recently done a joint application to the DMAF with the GNWT and the 29 impacted communities, to complete firebreaks.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I'm both humbled and honoured to be able to present today, from a small village in northern Saskatchewan. I'd like to extend my thanks to our MP, Gary Vidal, for the invite to present today.
As mentioned, I am the mayor of the northern Village of Beauval, which is located roughly 500 kilometres north of Saskatoon, just to give some context. We are at the centre of two major highway arteries, Highway 155 and Highway 165, which makes us the centralized location for northwest Saskatchewan.
I've had an interesting 10 years in my time as a politician in northern Saskatchewan. Previously, as a councillor, I was much involved in the emergency measures coordination for the wildfires that happened in 2015. There were a lot of wildfires surrounding our community, not necessarily near, but close enough to cause worry. With the smoke, we had a significant number of community members who needed to evacuate. In recent years as well, we've had wildfires break out near the community, but none to the extent of 2015, when we had to do some minor emergency coordination as well with the Saskatchewan protection agency. We've since developed a great partnership with Saskatchewan now that they've amalgamated all their resources into the SPSA. We've been coordinating efforts on the ground and creating a good emergency team.
There have been a lot of lessons learned over the last few years, and we've decided that our village staff should become a very pertinent part of that emergency planning as well, so as not to rely too much on volunteer services in the community. We made sure that the resources were flowing to the community and that accurate information was being presented and disseminated to the community through social media posts as well as radio spots on our local TV and radio station. We've had some very good communication resources to utilize to get that proper information out to the community.
During this recent emergency, when we had the COVID pandemic, we had a real opportunity to create a government-to-government relationship with the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan. For the most part, this relationship started off very strong, and we were very proud to sit down with our Métis government to discuss the strategy for the communities.
Again, here is some background. Most of the communities, from Green Lake all the way up to La Loche along Highway 155, are predominantly Métis communities.
This also presented an opportunity to work with our surrounding first nations. We created Beauval as a staging area for the whole northwest region, to create a regional approach to the pandemic response. Through federal supports and relief funds, we were able to procure PPE here—purchases as well as donations—and food supplies for the homes, so that we had food security during this tough time when stores, including grocery stores, in the surrounding area were closing.
We were also able to procure rental RVs that were deployed when isolation events occurred. This was very much appreciated at a time when we had households that were already experiencing overcrowding. We did not want to experience outbreaks in the households. They were able to isolate the specific case and move to an RV for the time of isolation.
The partnership was working quite fine for the most part, until the months passed—unfortunately, politics tend to get in the way of great ideas sometimes—and then it appeared that agencies wanted to be the hero of the day and claim credit when it came to news media time. This was not our intent at the time, and it didn't become an issue until the later part of the pandemic, when requests for resources and the sharing of resources went unheard. This then became a concern for our community.
Municipalities are not necessarily given any sort of emergency response budget, so a lot of unrecoverable costs went into managing our communities to protect ourselves from an invisible threat. As you all know, this was not a wildfire situation, where we can see and assess the threat. We had to create some very impromptu responses, such as blockades, whereby we had to close entrances and exits to and from the community and funnel everybody through one entrance and one exit. They had to be screened coming in and out of their communities. We were not the only community to do this. This also happened in Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan, and La Loche, Saskatchewan.
We also had to hire nightly security, who did patrols to make sure that individual households were following the emergency measures laws that were created by the province for families to stay within their own bubble, with no mixing between households, to curb the pandemic. We had to create that nightly security detail that would create logs that would come to the mayor and council in the morning. They would sometimes warrant a visit from one of our community leaders or the RCMP themselves, to remind households and educate them that we were in the midst of a pandemic and that rules needed to be followed.
The introduction of the CERB money also made matters a little bit worse, especially in a community that's already struggling with addictions. This money, which was well intended, obviously, for those suffering job displacement or loss, was abused by so many individuals already on some sort of social assistance program, causing further incidents for our community and breaches of the pandemic orders.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thanks to all of the witnesses for being here.
Of course this motion is very diverse and wide-ranging. For my portion of the questions, I'm going to focus on the security threats relative to the people and communities in the north.
Dr. Huebert, in early April, you testified at the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that “Russia is an existential threat to Canada”. You said that it is reaching the potential level of a crisis. You touched on this again today, and your testimony there noted that the most important element of that threat, which has been largely ignored, is the Russian way of war, in particular the potential use of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and Russia's willingness to do so in order to achieve its policy objectives of putting it on a direct collision course with NATO.
I think your testimony at the public safety committee pertained to a general threat to Canada. I wonder if now, for this committee, as you did in your opening remarks, you could add some more details and context to the threat in particular for the people and communities in northern Canada. In addition to that, could you outline perhaps three to five top priorities that governments could move on immediately to get prepared?
Thank you very much for this opportunity, and thank you for paying such close attention to what I have been arguing for a long time.
The Russians have been a threat since the return of an authoritative governance in Russia. This was, of course, when Putin became acting president in 1999. What many people do not know is this: One of the first decisions Putin made, from a military security perspective, was to develop a series of weapons systems, as early as 2002 or 2003, that could challenge the American anti-ballistic missile system. In other words, they were clearly developing the capabilities to engage in the series of wars they have engaged in: Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.
How does this pertain to the north? It pertains to the north because the Russians clearly see the Americans as the greatest challenge they have in achieving their policy objectives. In order to meet the American challenge, they have developed a series of weapons systems—hypersonic Avangard missiles and underwater autonomous vehicles—that are all designed to take out the American capability of striking back. The ability of the Americans to strike back is based on their northern capabilities, which we share with the Americans under NORAD.
If the Russians were, in fact, to strike the Americans, to allow them to then escalate in other parts of Europe, the conflict would automatically spill over into the northern component of Canada. This is what's leading the Americans, under the leadership of General VanHerck, the head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, to talk about the concept of integrated deterrence. He has publicly stated that the Americans do not have the capabilities of detecting the new Russian delivery systems, and that these new Russian delivery systems are, in fact, designed to take out the American ability to know and the American ability to respond.
Thule and Elmendorf are two of their most important bases. These are in the north. Canada, as a member of NORAD, supports the Americans through co-operation at forward operating bases for our aircraft and such, and with our NORAD radar systems under what used to be known as the DEW Line. The North Warning System is also part of it. Therefore, a Russian strike to blind the Americans would inevitably require a strike on Canadian targets, as well.
Once again, I want to make this clear: This is not a high probability, but it is still something that is clearly in the Russian way of war.
You asked me what our priorities should be. The first, of course, is to take NORAD renewal seriously. We have, in terms of our detection system and radar, 1985 technology. We need over-the-horizon radar systems. We need an improvement in our satellite capabilities. I dare say that simply having the systems we have in place now, never mind maintaining them, is problematic.
We also have to show the Americans that we are serious. This committee is looking at sovereignty. As much as Russia is a direct and existential threat to Canada for the reasons I have just outlined, there is the ongoing possibility—as illustrated in comments made by Senator Sullivan two weeks ago—that American political leadership may see us as a “freeloader”. When that happens, the Americans will act on their own to provide themselves with the necessary security.
That becomes a sovereignty threat for all of Canada, therefore, particularly for northern Canadians. If the Americans feel they have to do something in the north, they will act accordingly when they believe—as I believe they already understand—the Russians to be an existential threat.
Ensuring our seriousness about NORAD is the first priority.
The second, in terms of the response of this committee, is to ensure we have the proper emergency plan in place. As I said, our COVID response—
Certainly it is an ongoing challenge for us every time we come up against a new risk or a new challenge. The roles and responsibilities are very unclear.
We would definitely benefit from additional training, even if all it does is establish relationships beforehand so that people know who they are dealing with, know who they are speaking to, understand the communities, understand the territorial resources, and understand the federal resources better before they go into it.
The pandemic really demonstrated that. It was an uncontemplated risk and event, and we were really making things up as we went along. However, because we had relationships, we were able, for example, to convene regular meetings of mayors and chiefs and the territorial government, so the more training that happens in advance, the better set up everybody will be to respond effectively.
That's an excellent question.
If I'm being honest, I think, if anything, the cupboard has been demonstrated to be bare.
If we look at the period between 2010 and 2022—and I would just move the bar over to 2007—we have had two instances in which vessels have, in fact, entered the Canadian Northwest Passage without permission. In fact, we were not able to stop them.
We had, in 2007, the Berserk II, which sailed from the eastern side of the Northwest Passage all the way to Cambridge Bay. Finally, because community leaders were able to alert the RCMP to the arrival of this vessel, we were able to arrest the participants, who had criminal records, and deport them a second time.
The second example, of course, occurred in 2021, when the New Zealand Kiwi Roa yacht sail through the Northwest Passage. Again, we closed the Northwest Passage—as is our sovereign right, since it is in internal waters—because of the pandemic. They refused to acknowledge our ability to close it, and the boat sailed through. Again, the Coast Guard made a call that it was probably going to be safer to allow the vessel to go through than to risk having it come into a port and perhaps pass the virus on.
Nevertheless, I think it illustrates clearly that we do not have the ability to fully know when these vessels enter into our waters, and that we do not have the ability to stop them.
What is important is that it was the local communities, the indigenous communities, that in fact alerted us to it. Here we go back to Sara's point about the ability for a shared response in terms of defending our Arctic sovereignty.
As we move forward with respect to this inability to know and this inability to coordinate, once again we go back to the very important point Sara made about our ability to talk to each other and our willingness to act politically against those who are against our interests. We basically haven't really demonstrated very much in terms of political will to act upon this.
I have a supplementary question about land occupation. It's still for Mr. Huebert, but Ms. Brown and Mr. Daigneault could also answer it.
We talk about working with the communities, but we know very well that, in our northern regions, the population is quite small.
Do you believe that measures should be taken to populate this territory, to have people living on this territory and staying there? If not, any other recommendations from you would be welcome.
I would like to hear what you have to say about this issue. I would ask Mr. Huebert to answer first.
To further emphasize your point, I'm currently doing research on or writing a book on the voyage of the Polar Sea
, which was one of the most important elements of challenging Canadian sovereignty. I have to tell you that in 1985, one of the strongest voices in terms of how we understand what sovereignty is for came from the ITK and other leaders, such as our current Governor General, who spoke very eloquently.
Sovereignty is all about the ability of the government of whatever state it is to allow its rules, its norms and its values to exist, to be promoted and to be protected. Therefore, the definition.... Once again I go back to some of the writings of Mary Simon in 1985, saying that the whole point of why we were concerned about the Manhattan in 1969 and why we were concerned about the Polar Sea in 1985 was precisely because the people, and particularly the indigenous people, have lived on the land and ice. Therefore, what we want the sovereignty for is the protection of that lifespan. That, in fact, is the essence of.... Sovereignty by itself means nothing, as far as I'm concerned. It is what you do with sovereignty and why you want sovereignty.
Therefore, the expression that you have just provided is the “So what? Why do we bother even worrying about protecting Arctic sovereignty, if we're not going to protect it for a purpose?” I think that what you have just quoted is the beginning of a long establishment in terms of what Inuit understand by “sovereignty”.
I also want to thank all the witnesses today. As my colleague, Ms. Stubbs, said, it's a very wide-ranging topic we're talking about today, and I want to focus on emergency preparedness for a minute.
Mayor Daigneault, my question will be for you, based on your testimony. You talked about some of the jurisdictional issues. You talked about the Métis nation, the first nations and the municipalities in that region of northwest Saskatchewan coming together specifically around the pandemic. In your closing comments, when you had to end, you talked about a regional response.
I want to give you the opportunity to flesh that out a little and maybe give us some guidance on what the regional response might look like as you bring together those levels of government you talked about, as well as the provincial and federal governments. What might that look like and how would it help you in the future to be more proactive and better prepared for whatever future emergency you might face?
I had it in my notes, but unfortunately I had to rush through it. Thank you for the opportunity to get into detail on that.
When we first started the regional pandemic strategy, it started out as simply putting together a toll-free number through our communications company, SaskTel, so that mayors and emergency coordinators could all jump on the same phone line and coordinate regionally that way.
It's since, obviously, grown to something much larger, such as the sharing of resources using Beauval as a staging ground for all PPE, RVs, etc. to be disseminated and deployed from here. It grew even further so that each individual community didn't have to attend a one-on-one with the SPSA. We created an ad hoc regional EOC with a coordinator from Beauval who served as our go-to centralized person to get all of the resources together, including the medical health officer for our region and the director of the Saskatchewan protection agency, to get them all on to the same Zoom call and share that information so that everybody left with the same message at the end of every day when the call was done. We all went away with the same message to take back to our communities and the same strategies that we offered back to agencies to take to the governments, the province and the federal government, as the resources were coming in. Like you said, there were a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of resources that each government can offer, and we wanted to make sure that we, as the boots on the ground, were giving them those suggestions directly so that we could work together.
As a region, all our communities have a kinship, and we capitalized on that. It's just expanding that concept in coming up with an actual legal plan, because, as you all know, there's an emergency preparedness act for the province, and it's just bridging the gap between federal jurisdictions such as first nations and the Métis governments and the municipalities. The province needs to put pen to paper.
If I may, there is one solution that has great promise in this regard. I've already mentioned the Arctic security working group. In 2005, the group had the director of Health Canada come forward, and they had a discussion at which they presented to the body—I attended some of the meetings—the outline of the possibility of a pandemic of a respiratory disease that basically cripples the country.
We did a tabletop. We tried to have communications, but it basically stopped in 2005 or 2007. The Arctic security working group and other bodies like it have to do two things. First of all, they have to think of bad problems. We can't just simply assume these problems will not come. The second part then becomes practice.
If we were able to have the type of ability, and the funding, to see how badly we do things... It's when we see how badly we do something that we come up with the best practice. We then go forward and say, “We have this problem that we don't think is a problem. Pandemics. Let's pretend one actually comes, and see what the communications are like.”
If we had had more than a tabletop in 2007, I dare say we would have had a much better preparation for 2020. You need that big thinking. That comes from a constant ability to look at these problems as they're coming, and then having the necessary funds. Fund the federal government to say, “Okay, territories, indigenous governments and municipal governments, we're going to give you a bit of an open budget here to address and play out the problem.” You do that, and I guarantee that the communication issue that Sara was talking about, and many of the central problems that we have.... We will be that much better prepared for it.
That concludes our first panel.
I would like to thank our witnesses today, Professor Huebert, Mayor Daigneault, and Ms. Sarah Brown, for their participation.
Thank you for your testimony and for answering our questions. We apologize. We started a bit late, but thank you. You will help the committee in its work, and we very much appreciate it.
With that, we will suspend, just for a minute, as we prepare for our second panel.
Thank you, honourable Chair.
Thank you also for the opportunity to speak among this distinguished panel of guests.
I'm going to confine my comments today to the heart of security: aspects of northern security geostrategy and the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to respond to them, as these are really the areas of my expertise.
The security dynamics within the Arctic are going through a fairly significant shift. Prior to January of this year, one could argue that the Arctic posed a challenging security environment, given the growing geographical accessibility of the region due to climate change and the steady increase of tensions between regional powers, most notably with Russia.
From 2010 onwards, the Russian Federation in particular invested in its northern capabilities, including the development of integrated Arctic bases and an increasingly powerful icebreaker fleet, and modernizing its nuclear submarine force. Russia's ambition is to provide at least a strong presence in the north to assert its sovereignty, which includes contested claims with Canada.
Relatedly, Russia has also announced a refurbished strategic nuclear force with exotic new weapons, several of which are intended to degrade NORAD capabilities in a potential nuclear conflict. At the same time, diplomatic engagement in the Arctic has been holding steady, at least compared to other areas of our bilateral relations following Russia's invasion in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine over the past few months has significantly altered the strategic landscape; however, many of the capabilities that Russia utilizes for Arctic security have not been employed in that conflict and thus remain a potential threat. Russia's assets available to operate in the north will likely plateau for the time being, whether due to lack of funding or lack of access to key components in western countries. If the current regime remains in power, Russia is likely to remain hawkish in pressing its sovereignty claims, which would become a flashpoint for future conflict.
There are also much less acute challenges that require response. Disputes over and access through Canadian territory in the north require the government to possess the wherewithal to maintain its sovereignty over the region. These disputes are often with close allies, such as the United States, and they are exceedingly unlikely to result in direct military conflict. While diplomatic tools remain the most likely way to resolve these issues, Canada still must maintain the civil and military capabilities across the entire spectrum as a potential response.
That being said, Canada's capabilities in the north are growing, but significant deficiencies remain. The recent announcements on defence spending specifically targeted towards northern security and modernizing NORAD are welcome, but these address only certain challenges, and it is far from certain that they'll be deployed under the current estimated timelines and costs. For example, the government has recently announced the selection of the F-35 as a replacement for the CF-18; however, there are doubts as to whether it can phase in these aircraft according to the schedule it has announced.
The navy's ongoing acquisitions of the Harry DeWolf class ships will be an excellent addition to Canada's northern presence. These vessels will assist in increasing the country's northern presence and make major strides in providing a wide range of capabilities to coastal communities above the Arctic Circle.
Lastly, Canada faces some key deficiencies. As I discussed in a recent Hill Times article, Canada's fixed-wing search and rescue fleet seems to be in trouble due to the selection of the CC-295. The aircraft has numerous technical and performance deficiencies that make it unlikely to enter service in its intended role, which may require a third competition to fill this capability. Furthermore, Canada has no effective counter to Russian or even allies' nuclear submarines, which can be effectively countered only by other nuclear submarines.
I hope this gives a good overview of the general state of security in the north. I'm happy to elucidate any area during the question period for this meeting.
Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to first of all acknowledge that we're on the unceded Algonquin Anishinabe territory.
I appreciate this opportunity to appear before this committee on behalf of the 49 first nations of Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
Emergency management is critical for first nations, especially our remote communities. It has been six years since the tragedy in the Pikangikum First Nation, which claimed nine innocent lives, including that of Amber Strang, a five-month-old infant, and three generations of her family. There have been many other similar tragedies, including the fatal house fire in the Sandy Lake First Nation in January, which claimed the lives of three children. These fires were preventable tragedies, and lives will continue to be lost without meaningful action.
The Ontario Chief Coroner's Table on understanding fire deaths in First Nations examined fire-related deaths in 20 communities, including seven NAN first nations, over the last decade. The report confirms what our leaders have been saying for years: Too many innocent lives have been lost in tragic house fires that might have been prevented if safety measures and prevention services had been in place.
The report found that first nations children under 10 had the highest fire-related mortality rates. Communities with no year-round road access had the highest number of fire fatalities. Eighty-six percent of fatal fires in first nations communities had either no or non-operational smoke alarms in the housing structure. Fatal fires where the primary sources of heating were wood stoves or wood heaters were highest in communities with no year-round road access.
Everyone should be able to go to bed and expect to see their families in the morning. It is unacceptable that our children are at high risk.
Despite numerous reports over the last few years, our communities have continued to suffer losses from tragic house fires. These reports state that our communities need resources, training, updated equipment and the ability to service and maintain equipment and related infrastructure to deal with and prevent fires. In the last decade, we've seen minimal improvements in these areas, primarily due to a lack of will to support proposals and initiatives.
In 2021, NAN identified the following priorities for major improvements to fire safety and prevention: increase fire safety awareness and education through Amber's fire safety campaign; implement a standardized service delivery model across NAN territory; and ensure that community infrastructure and housing conditions are acceptable and built to code.
These are solid recommendations that require action.
House fires are not the only threat to our communities. On-reserve first nations in Ontario are 18 times more likely to be evacuated due to floods, forest fires, a failure of community infrastructure and severe weather events, compared to the general population of Canada. More than 80% of these emergencies occur in NAN territory. These emergencies are only increasing in frequency, severity and duration due to climate change, and are especially devastating in remote communities, where the lack of services, capacity and infrastructure are detrimental to an efficient response and recovery.
Last summer was a record-setting forest fire season in northern Ontario, particularly in northwestern Ontario, which is NAN territory. Thousands of NAN community members were evacuated because of smoke and fires threatening their health, homes and safety. Despite these threats, some community members risked their lives by staying behind or returning to their communities, rather than remaining in seriously inadequate conditions in faraway locations. Evacuated community members from one community were forced to stay in a school gymnasium without adequate washrooms or showers. Those who didn't evacuate stayed in their communities without access to basic health services and policing.
The distances that remote communities must travel for evacuations can be immense. For example, last year, hundreds of Deer Lake First Nation residents were evacuated to Cornwall, Ontario. The direct overland distance from Deer Lake to Cornwall is 1,500 kilometres. That is further than from Ottawa to Corner Brook, Newfoundland. They were allowed one suitcase each, not knowing when they'd be able to return home or if they would have a home to return to.
This year has already seen an increase in communities struggling with flooding due to higher-than-normal amounts of snow and precipitation in the winter and spring. This has put homes and other infrastructure, including water treatment plants, at risk for damage and loss. For two fly-in communities this spring, flood waters covered the only road to the airports—their only source for incoming groceries and clean drinking water and the sole means for medical and emergency evacuation.
When a tragedy such as a house fire, a threat of forest fire, an outbreak or a flood happens, the chief and council and support workers must work at maximum capacity. They require immediate assistance from all available agencies. Emergency situations often lead to leadership and frontline workers becoming overwhelmed and requiring additional support and relief.
For fly-in communities, there are no nearby communities or municipalities with road access to provide quick relief, equipment, or additional supports in times of crisis. This reality caused undue stress a few weeks ago, when multiple NAN communities were scrambling to get sandbags into their communities. Due to shortages in northwestern Ontario, sandbags needed to be purchased and flown to tribal councils from as far away as Winnipeg.
States of emergency are often declared due to widespread trauma and persistent significant shortages of services and resources. Declaring a state of emergency should eliminate barriers to accessing accommodations and resources that are desperately needed, including such wraparound supports as health care and mental health services.
However, this is not always the case. We see a continued failure from the government to respond, which raises questions about whether the government understands or cares about the threats to our first nations. The emergency management concept we have presented outlines this and is the direction that the province and both levels of government should be headed in. The creation of a first nations-led emergency management service is a crucial part of saving lives and infrastructure in our NAN first nations, with the goal to establish and apply the same or higher standards for fire safety and emergency management as you see elsewhere in Canada.
This is the foundation for action towards a holistic and successful approach to emergency management for NAN first nations. Partners must acknowledge these issues and gaps and move forward together for a successful and culturally appropriate service delivery model that supports and empowers our first nations communities.
It must be understood that underfunding or shortchanging proposals for prevention ends up unnecessarily increasing the risk of both death and loss. The time for talking about this is over. As I always say, leadership is action.
Thank you. Meegwetch.
I think it's unlikely, given the situation we're in, that we will see any change in the capabilities that are available. Because of the unavailability of the C-295 Kingfisher for operational service, the Royal Canadian Air Force has been forced to utilize its C-130 fleet, specifically H models, to operate in the north and provide fixed-wing search and rescue capabilities across Canada. The problem is that the C-130 fleet has a life limit. It can be used only for a certain number of hours, after which it cannot be refurbished any further and must be taken out of service.
As we see right now, we haven't seen a gap in the capability that is being provided in the region. Given the unlikely outcome that a C-295 will operate.... Right now the government has actually said that it will not have entry into service until at least 2025. In reality, I do not believe it will actually meet that time frame at all, and we'll have to find a different solution.
I don't believe there will be any ability for the Canadian Armed Forces to change the current makeup of its fixed-wing search and rescue capability in the country. The problem is that five years from now, it's going to need a solution. It will not have enough flight hours left with the existing fleet to do search and rescue and all the other stuff it's required to do, such as transport, providing transport within Canada or outside of Canada—anything.
So it needs a response. The government must outline pretty quickly here what its response will be if the C-295 is unable to meet the requirements it's been set out to meet.
I'm going to preface my comments by saying that one of the reasons I brought this study forward was to in fact create that action that Grand Chief Fox spoke about. With that said, what we as a committee need is for a report to go to the House, to the minister, for a reaction, and therefore to create that action.
I'm going to make a statement and I'm going to ask you a question. I'm going to make the statement because I need it on the record and I need the analysts to include it in their final report. When it comes to emergency preparedness, it's been mentioned in past meetings that, one, to move forward, a team has to be established within your community. That team has to embark upon making an emergency preparedness plan. As part of that, infrastructure capacities have to be recognized and identified. The infrastructure supports needed during emergencies have to be identified, hopefully in advance but sometimes that doesn't happen until the actual emergency happens, understandably. Advanced ancillary services have to be identified, such as your haz-mat, your PPE, as was mentioned, mutual aid with neighbouring communities if there are neighbouring communities, and other services that might be available to you, along with communications within your team and of course outside. Lots of times when an emergency happens, the community doesn't get prompted. If it's a water situation, for example, what prompts the community to actually recognize that there's an emergency? What opportunities and what infrastructure can you have in place to prompt the community? There could be an air raid siren, for example, and then when people hear that they would go to a certain radio station, with a battery-powered radio, of course. That would then prompt them to do what needs to be done.
With all that said, and with respect to the investments that have to be made, one, there is the community's strategic plan. That leverages not only emergency preparedness and ongoing infrastructure updates to emergency services to prepare for those situations, but also the investments for overall infrastructure capacities, even during times when there's no emergency. Those can include fibre, water and waste water, asset management declarations, habitat and community restoration after the fact, indigenous procurement, governance priorities and, of course, communication between ministries.
With all that said, I have two questions. Do you agree with that premise? That's so the analysts can include that on the record. Second, do you have any further comments on that?
Good afternoon. Thank you for the statement.
Yes, we definitely need that service. Before I proceed, I'm going to ask Mike McKay, our lead on this, to speak to some of the things you said shortly. Yes, emergency preparedness is much needed, I don't think there are many plans in place for our territory. What's happening in the north is fairly new. We have forest fires and flooding, situations that have never occurred in the history of man. I think those things are going to increase, so I believe we need to start planning at both levels of government and with our partners and tribal councils.
There's a lot of work to be done there, but when you talk about partners and neighbouring communities, there are tribal councils. There are a lot of nations within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation that need to work together also, so it's going to take a lot of collaboration as well as funding to start that process within NAN, and of course, that support from both levels of government, as you said, in a committee or whatever it might look like.
I'm going to ask Mike to speak quickly here.
When it comes to emergency response and these crises we see, I think prevention is the foundation of everything. It's just being prepared to ensure that, first of all, lives are not lost. We've lost people and we've lost young people.
The families get scattered throughout the province and even across Canada. We have had families in Saskatchewan. You have a community of 2,000 or 3,000 and there's only so many people who can go to one place. For example, Pikangikum is a very strong Ojibwa community that goes over to the Cree territory in the Timmins area. They don't have translators. There are just numerous kinds of issues like that. They get to the hotel and there are no translators or support services.
The townships are overwhelmed. The municipalities have to use their resources, their firefighters, their police officers and their child and family care workers. You name it and they're using all of their resources to support this. The cost just adds up. The ultimate cost is the loss of life, and we've endured that. We don't want to see any more lost lives, but it happens.
It's the foundation of emergency response. When we talk about preparedness and response, I think preparedness is so much more crucial and so much more important.
I believe they are not in line with reconciliation. It has been many years. I only say that because, as I stated earlier, we've lost lives, and we continue to lose lives due to these circumstances.
We talk about reconciliation. In many ways, it means many different things to different people across the country, whether you're first nations, non-first nations, or Inuit. It has different meanings. The incremental change that has occurred has been much too slow for our satisfaction at NAN. We've just lost three young people, as I stated in my remarks, and we are unsure about the future, about this coming summer, and hopeful that we don't lose more lives.
Once again, it comes back to the preparedness and ensuring that the safety of our people is paramount. If our government wants to talk reconciliation, then let's start ensuring that lives are not lost anymore. That could have been prevented. The loss of those lives could have been prevented if our issues had been taken more seriously.
First of all, we would like to see a service for the north, a committee, as the member mentioned in a question earlier—a committee and a service to ensure we are prepared. That is why we are here today.
Of course, I can go on and on about reconciliation and the many things that our first nations people want as far as treaty recognition, our homelands, jurisdiction, ownership of our homelands and honouring the treaties.
With respect to this question, a great first step would be that service, ensuring that we have support from both levels of government and, of course, our many partners—municipalities, tribal councils, and neighbouring first nations—across the country, who have been there and who have taken our evacuees in,.
We are appreciative of the support that we have gotten so far, but it needs to be more than incremental. It needs to increase. It needs to be consistent with the changes that are happening with respect to climate change.
The things we're seeing in the north are things we have never seen before. You probably see it across the country. You probably see it across the world. The government needs to be consistent, or align itself, with what is going on in our territory, which is what's also going on throughout the world. This is huge. I don't know if those changes involve pollution, those things that are hurting our country and our world. I'm not sure, but action needs to happen.