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Guest Column: February 2012

The recent spotlight on the Attawapiskat First Nation is sure to generate lots of discussion, ranging from federal and provincial responsibilities to the problems faced by aboriginal communities

February 14, 2012  By Jeremy Parkin

The recent spotlight on the Attawapiskat First Nation is sure to generate lots of discussion, ranging from federal and provincial responsibilities to the problems faced by aboriginal communities, such as geographic isolation, the legacy of colonialism, resource disparity and, in the worst cases, societal woes.

One topic that should be addressed is fire safety. To many, fire safety is a generally recognized concept of community safety and infrastructure – the ability to keep safe what you have built, including families.

This is not the case in many of Canada’s First Nations. In Ontario, a 10-year average shows that the province has reduced its death rate to 8.6 per million, while First Nations are at 72.3 per million. There are several structural inhibitors to the growth and development of emergency services in these communities.

The greatest issue is the lack of any regulatory or legislative arm to direct and oversee fire safety. While many provinces have enacted their own, First Nations communities are federal entities when it comes to levels of government and are therefore left with nothing to adhere to. They are not necessarily able to adopt a standard approach with its accompanying standards, codes and legislative backing. This is an essential piece to creating fire-safe communities. Stipulations in the Indian Act allow for adoption and/or creation of bylaws, but lack an enforcement branch.


Federal funding for fire safety is severely out of date with only minimal dollars available for training, building and apparatus maintenance. The discrepancy is in the low per capita rates as compared to municipal fire services. Band councils are left to make up the difference, including firefighter wages and/or honorariums, from other sources. There is an inconsistent approach to funding all First Nations in the country on an equal and proportionate schedule. The lack of regulatory requirements leaves the federal government in a state of limbo, and in most cases it results in inappropriate discretionary funding.

Coupled with the lack of proper financial and legislative support, many communities are facing the same issues as their municipal neighbours; recruitment and retention, training and meeting training standards, and effective public education programs.

Communication is a growing trend. Fire chiefs are talking to other fire chiefs and sharing their concerns.

There is a growing awareness that issues were not unique to individual fire departments;
they were shared. It was due in large part to this that the formation of the Ontario First Nations Fire Chiefs Association occurred. A two-year development phase completed itself in 2010 when the association formed its first constitution and executive board. This past November saw OFNFCA host its first annual meeting at Six Nations, and this two-day event brought together First Nations fire chiefs to discuss current issues, take part in goal setting discussions, and hear from guest speakers. The event also included a trade show.

The group is led by Michael Seth, president, fire chief of the Six Nations Fire Department, and Scott Maracle, vice-president, fire chief of the Mohawk Fire Department in Tyendinaga, and has expanded to include regional directors from across the province.

One of the key components of the association is advocacy: the need for the leaders of First Nations fire departments to have a common voice, and to be heard as a stakeholder in community safety. There is a need to educate across the board. We need to ensure our firefighters are educated on the safest, most efficient and most modern skills available. We need to educate each other, amongst the fire chiefs of First Nations fire departments, as to current trends, risk management and proper department growth.

Maintaining professional currency is important in any job. We need to educate our elected leaders so that they may understand the risks our communities and their members face. And lastly, we need to educate the governments we work with, both provincial and federal, as to the changing dynamic of First Nations communities.

Fire safety is not bound by cultural borders; fire does not see race, and fire does not judge by economic class. By educating everyone who is connected to First Nations fire safety – everyone in the circle – we can create safer communities, and become fiscally responsible.

By educating, legislating, and standardizing in our communities, perhaps we can inspire the youth to become champions within their homes. We can begin to forge a new mindset of not only saving lives, but preventing more needless tragedies. The goal of the Ontario First Nations fire chiefs is simple: plant the seed of safety. One day, it will provide shelter for many.

Jeremy Parkin is a deputy chief with Rama Fire Rescue Service in Ontario. He has 13 years of fire-service experience and is the secretary/treasurer of Ontario First Nations Fire Chiefs Association. Contact him at

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