Aug. 11, 2015, Toronto – I first met Blaine Wiggins, executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC), a few years back, on a bus, travelling between downtown Calgary and a rodeo ground somewhere outside the city for a conference “fun” night. (I learned way too much about bulls but also got to meet country-music superstar Paul Brandt, so it wasn’t all bad!)
On the bus ride, I wanted to know more about the challenges of fire prevention, protection and suppression on First Nations. Wiggins obliged. (I didn’t get a word in edgewise on the 45-minute drive, but that was fine; reporters are supposed to listen, not talk!)
That was in 2011, when Wiggins was a firefighter in Iqaluit. He’s now superintendent at the BC Ambulance Service and the voice of the AFAC. He’s been quoted a lot recently, by the likes of the CBC, The Canadian Press, the National Post and other major newspapers, mostly following fatal fires on First Nations.
Not much has changed in the four years since we (he!) talked on the bus; over the winter two toddlers died in a fire on the Mawka Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan. You probably remember the discussion and debate that followed, about a fire-service agreement with nearby Loon Lake, unpaid bills, funding and resources.
“First and foremost, we need a national building and fire code on reserves,” Wiggins told CBC News in February. “Most people aren’t aware that that doesn’t exist.”
More money, Wiggins said, would also help.
Then, in April a keen, young Canadian Press reporter interviewed the fire chief at Six Nations of the Grand River here in Ontario – where my older offspring played a fair bit of lacrosse, where I trained a few years ago with instructor and columnist Mark van der Feyst, and which I pass every time I drive to our Fire Fighting in Canada head office in Simcoe – who said the department is “hanging on by a thread” with too many calls and not nearly enough volunteers or resources.
The Six Nations story went national – because many other First Nations fire departments are in exactly the same challenging circumstances.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reminds us often that it provides $26 million annually for fire departments on First Nations. Yet, as is reported often, First Nations people are 10 times more likely than everyone else to die in a fire.
Wiggins is in Ontario this week, at the AFCA’s annual general meeting hosted by Chippewas of Rama Fire and Rescue, a well-funded and progressive department with strong leadership by Chief Mike French, Deputy Chief Jeremy Parkins and Assistant Chief James Simcoe.
I’m heading up there for training (and lots of picture-taking) with M&L Supply on Thursday, a strategy session – the FireSmart program and the transportation of dangerous goods are on the agenda, among other things – and the AGM on Friday.
In February, after the fatalities in Saskatchewan, AFAC president Leon Smallboy put out a press release listing the association’s targets for working with Ottawa:
- to establish a national fire-service standard for First Nations communities
- to establish standards for mutual aid and fee-for-service fire-protection agreements
- to establish standards for fire prevention/public education
The AFAC also wants more support from provincial fire marshals and fire commissioners.
All are lofty goals that require considerable commitment, time and perseverance.
I’m anxious to hear more.
Once again, I’ll be doing the listening.