By Jason Warick, The StarPhoenix
The chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) hopes some good can come from the deaths of two children on the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in a house fire last week.
He said the deaths of Solomon and Josiah Ballantyne raise a host of issues, including the need for First Nations themselves to improve education and volunteer co-sordination. But according to federal government figures compiled by the FSIN, Saskatchewan First Nations receive just a fraction of the government funding necessary to start and maintain and proper fire department.
“Look at the numbers. They just jump out at you,” Bellegarde said. “How can any First Nation meet the needs of its people?”
According to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) numbers cited by Bellegarde, Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations receive $1,266,339 annually for fire protection operation and maintenance. That money is needed to train volunteers, build fire halls and buy and maintain trucks and other equipment. There is other funding provided for forest fire suppression.
“This is a fundamental service. It should be a priority,” Bellegarde said.
In the case of last week’s fire, no one fought the fire because the truck has long been in need of repair. It’s the second fatal fire in four months in Pelican Narrows, a community of 3,500 people and one of several reserves of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.
“My heart goes out to this family. My hope is to stop these tragedies from happening,” he said.
Bellegarde said community leaders must find ways to educate their people about fire safety. He said there also needs to be a better system of recruiting volunteers, and band members must be willing to help.
However, without the funding enjoyed by many other Saskatchewan communities, fire protection will remain difficult on Saskatchewan First Nations.
Bellegarde said it’s part of a wider funding problem, and the same disparity exists in areas ranging from education to social housing. He stressed the need for a “new fiscal arrangement” with the federal government. For more than a decade, the federal government has capped increases in transfer payments to First Nations at two per cent. That’s not nearly enough to keep up with inflation and other costs, and is far less than the government spending increases in other areas.
No one from AANDC could be reached for comment.