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Aug. 24, 2015, Toronto – A former fire chief I know often says that whatever matter he’s working on with a certain agency is moving at the speed of government –painfully slowly.

That frustration with the bureaucracy was clear in Rama, Ont., the week before last, as some new board members with the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC) vented about perceived lack of progress on issues and the revolving door through which federal policy makers come and go, leaving organizations to start from scratch with new appointees (in this case, five in the last five years).

That’s the point at which AFAC executive director Blaine Wiggins gently interjected, explaining that, in fact, the association and the government have made remarkable progress on myriad fire-service issues from transportation of dangerous goods to fire prevention on First Nations, and that the task at hand – building a new legislative framework for First Nations in order to establish and enforce building codes – is overwhelmingly complex and requires time and patience.

Sure, fire fatalities on First Nations grab headlines and the good work of the association rarely merits a mention, but that’s the way news works. As for government, portfolios change, people move on, and it’s up to First Nations fire chiefs to lead regardless of the machinations of the bureaucracy, Wiggins said.

The challenge, Wiggins told me a couple of times, is finding strong First Nations leaders with the necessary support to push a fire-safety agenda, educate politicians and policy makers, and work relentlessly at home to improve conditions.

Steve Nolan and Billy Moffat are two of those leaders. As fire chiefs around the table during a morning strategy session detailed the goings on in their provinces, Nolan and Moffat, from Ontario and Quebec respectively, talked about empowerment and initiative – for example, starting a health program for First Nations firefighters through a partnership with Fit for Life, and improving standards on reserves.

“We want a better, more progressive system, “ said Nolan, the new chief in Garden River, Ont.

Agreed, said Wiggins. But amending the Indian Act – a decades-old piece of legislation – and building that framework necessary to raise building standards and therefore increase fire safety is a measured and meticulous process.

In the meantime, the association has been collaborating with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to update the First Nations fire-protection strategy, which sets objectives for the next five years to help communities reduce the risk of fire-related deaths and injuries through fire prevention, and the more complex level-of-service standards. LOSS – which everyone agrees is an unfortunate acronym – define the minimum level of service that Ottawa is willing to support for fire-prevention programming, capital and equipment investments and operations and maintenance funding. AFAC has been working with government to update the standard for two years already.

While all this is going on, AFAC has committed to establishing standards for fire prevention, and it’s making progress. A national poster contest draws hundreds of entries from school children who are incorporating previous years’ fire-safety messages along with the current mottos and slogans – a small step forward that makes Wiggins beam with pride.

A fire-safety radio campaign in conjunction with Aboriginal Affairs has also been successful, but even it presents challenges because of political divisions north and south of 60. A national fire marshal would help, Wiggins said.

“That’s the other thing we lack,” Wiggins said, “a national fire marshal and one of the things we’ve been trying to push as an agenda item is the creation of a national aboriginal fire marshal that will take some of the work we’re doing and formalize it.”

Another significant positive, Wiggins said, is AFAC’s strengthened relationship with parliamentarians.

“Three years ago we could not have gone to Ottawa, to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs’ door, and get a meeting if our lives depended on it. We have worked with partner agencies from coast to coast, we come with solid information – not political agendas – and now those doors are open to us.

“The gaps that exist – pretty much every MP is aware of them now. So if a bill were introduced, the MPs know what the issues are. And we recognize that working with the bureaucratic component of the federal government and working with the political component . . . our role is to educate, not to lobby. It’s the political component that really needs to do the right thing and have the political will to make changes.”

Still, Wiggins said, although many First Nations communities are, as he says, over subscribed – meaning that under self-government they are responsible for social programs, taxation, health services and myriad other programs – they need to take responsibility for fire protection, or the lack of it.

“We believe in accountability at all levels,” Wiggins said, “right from those who live in the homes to the local First Nations fire departments, to the band chiefs and councils, to the regional INAC [Indian Northern Affairs Canada] that supports the communities, to ourselves as a national organization, and to Aboriginal Affairs.

“If we don’t bring the awareness of the accountabilities to those who live in the homes, we can’t have everybody else take care of them, so that really is an important component, and we hold ourselves accountable for that as an organization.”

Six years ago, Wiggins was part of an investigation into a fire that killed a grandmother, her daughter and her grandchild. That, he says, inspires him to work 18-hour days and take vacation time to attend AFAC-related events.

Wiggins has committed to five more years as AFAC executive director. He already has a plan for educating new MPs after the October election.

He will, in his words, hold feet to the fire until a new legislative framework is in place. Even if it happens at the speed of government.

August 24, 2015
By Laura King


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