Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Michael's Essay: Fire Safety is Out of Bounds in First Nations

Michael Enright

Iesha Rabbitskin was 10 years old when she died. She had a huge smile with two dimples. She was an avid student of the singing and dancing traditions of her people.

She died March 2nd when her grandmother's house burned to the ground on the Witchekan Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

She was the fourth child to die in a burning house on a Saskatchewan reserve in six months. Solomon Ballantyne was also 10 years old. His little brother Josiah was nine when they burned to death in January on the Pelican Narrows First Nation. Denasia Sewap died in a house fire at Pelican Narrows last year. She too was 10. Last month, on the Mishkeegogamang First Nation in far Northwestern Ontario, Joyce Wassaykeesic died in a house fire, along with her daughters Serenity, age 6 and Kira-Lyn, age four. A nephew, Nathan, 21 died in the same fire.

The list is long and continues to grow. And it goes back a long way. In 2009, five people died in a house fire on the Chemainus Reserve in British Columbia. Before that many more and before that many more.

It is a sad reality that people living on an Indian reserve in Canada are ten times more likely to die in a house fire than people living in the rest of Canada. Ten times.

Especially in the winter when wood stoves or coal burning stoves overheat and sometimes explode or tip over. Part of the problem is the sorry state of fire-fighting equipment on reserves. On the Pelican Narrows Reserve, its one fire truck is more than 25 years old. Another problem is the fact that the firefighters are all volunteer. Sometimes some of them don't like to be called out on a winter's night for unpaid work.

Often when politicians and governments are called on to increase program spending or initiate a specific spending program, their fallback positions goes like this: "You cannot solve a problem by just throwing money at it." Well as a matter of fact, sometimes you can. Sometimes a lot of money is exactly what it takes to solve a major problem.

The 322 First Nations in Canada have to share $26-million in fire prevention on reserves. As a percentage of government revenues, this pittance is almost too small to measure. Peanuts.

It would not take much to upgrade fire equipment, establish fire education and training programs and establish annual inspection programs. All it would take is someone in Ottawa to sign a cheque.

If this is seen as an entitlement, it is. Residents on reserves are entitled not to see their children burned to death. The Federal government has been reluctant to talk about the fire deaths on reserves. Lobbying efforts by the Aboriginal Firefighters' Association of Canada have yielded nothing concrete from the government. The office of the minister, Bernard Valcourt, issued a statement recently saying the fire strategy was under review.

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