First Nations: No way to enforce fire code, document says


Federal officials warned in an internal briefing document that there is no way to enforce building or fire rules on First Nations and that pursuing a legislative fix will require time and considerable money.

But Blaine Wiggins, senior director of the Indigenous Fire Police Service, said the enforcement flaw had “catastrophic” consequences.

Home fires have long posed a major safety risk to those living on the reserve, with several children dying in fires that broke out in communities earlier this year in southern Alberta and northern Ontario.

Indigenous leaders and experts link the high number of deadly house fires on the reserves to a lack of appropriate housing and overcrowding, as well as inadequate funding and education about fire prevention. .

Both the Canadian Fire Police Association and the Canadian Aboriginal Firefighters Association have called on Ottawa to pass legislation that would apply building and firefighting codes to First Nations communities, and require emergency calls. inspect.

But a brief document prepared for the deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada said there is currently no way to enforce provincial or national rules for buildings located within the reserve.

The document, obtained by the Canadian Press, says the department can ensure the infrastructure that the funding agency has in place complies with those rules but the only other enforcement option for individual First Nations is to pass a “law especially”.

Officials said: “While there has long been recognition of the need to address compliance with building and fire codes for other infrastructure and housing, there has been no broad support for an approach to fire code enforcement and contingency building”.

Provincial fire authorities can condemn a building that is outside a reserve if they feel it puts the lives of those inside at risk but that is more complicated for reserve structures, documents said.

“Since most fire deaths occur in residential buildings, enacting a similar approach is for communities within the reserve,” officials said in the summary report. would mean that First Nations individuals could have limited access to their property on First Nation land.”

“Such an approach requires careful consideration and would require substantial consultation.”

Wiggins said whether it is a new law or a law enacted by the First Nation, the government must provide the necessary funding and resources to ensure these standards can be met.

“There was concern in the leadership of the First Nations, just like with other laws, that once the law was enacted, the federal government didn’t fund it properly, so it failed,” he said.

The briefing document seems to suggest that federal officials feel the same way. Fire protection is not regulated as an essential service, officials said, and the efforts underway to designate First Nations police as needed are costly.

“A legislative approach to fire protection would likely follow a similar path, requiring early and significant commitments to funding and programs,” the document reads.

A spokesman for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said in a statement that the government had no plans to make fire protection legislation after consulting with First Nations partners and communities.

“It was determined that legislation would not be the best approach at this point. Instead, the focus should remain on identifying and understanding the gaps that currently exist and working to close them with each other,” the statement read.

“If legislation is identified by Indigenous leadership as a priority at some point in the future, the federal government will take this advice into account and stand ready to work together.”

Indigenous Services Canada is currently working with the Council of First Nations to come up with a new fire prevention strategy to improve the use of fire codes.

In 2021, Ontario’s chief coroner said in a First Nations fire deaths report that there was “legal negligence.”

That review, which followed several deadly fires in Ontario’s reserves, said that because First Nations land is regulated by the federal Indians Act, provincial building codes are often not applied and First Nations often fell through the cracks.

The review concluded: “Disputes between the federal and provincial governments over their respective jurisdictions have contributed to chronic underfunding and inadequate and fragmented services provided. for indigenous communities”.

It also said most of the deadly First Nations fires occurred in a home that lacked a smoke alarm or had a non-working device.

That is one area where Wiggins believes Ottawa must act.

He said: “Every jurisdiction is legally required to have smoke alarms in the home…except First Nations. “First countries are not required by law to have that simple instrument.

“We asked the federal government, just pass a law that says you have to work smoke alarms in your home … nothing more complicated than that and then give us the task of helping every community. agree to that.”

This Canadian Press report was first published on October 5, 2022.


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