Fire Fighting in Canada

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Improving diversity in the fire service

Research highlights need for increased workplace opportunity for Indigenous people.

July 25, 2022 
By Len Garis and Mandy Desautels


New research is showcasing potential pathways for improving the number of Indigenous candidates working in the Canadian fire service.

Released in March 2022, the report “Fire Department Diversity and Inclusion: Creating Opportunities for Indigenous Recruitment” reviewed data from Statistics Canada and a survey of Canadian fire departments to assess the employment challenges and opportunities facing Indigenous people related to the fire service and municipal government, where they are currently under-represented.

In particular, the report sought to determine if fire services and municipal governments in Canada had hiring policies that target equity groups such as Indigenous people, and to identify the challenges these agencies encounter in hiring members of these groups.

“Indigenous people historically don’t do as well in the formal economy as other populations, but opportunities do exist to address this disparity,” said Blaine Wiggins, executive director for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC), which represents regional Indigenous emergency and fire service organizations across the country. “While some advances have been made to close the gap, there is still much work to be done to support Indigenous populations in obtaining skills and meaningful employment. We’re hoping to spark a conversation and work together to make progress on this issue.”

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AFAC’s National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC)  commissioned the report as part of its ongoing work to add to the body of research available on Canada’s First Nations populations – in particular, Inuit and Métis people and communities, and First Nations residents living off reserve – in order to expand its knowledge base and develop targeted, evidence-based programs and interventions.

The report was prepared by Canadian academics with a background in social and public safety research: Dr. Paul Maxim, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Sociology at Western University, and Mona Davies, a legal analyst who has worked with legal, academic and research organizations for more than 15 years.

Some of the findings of the report, which obtained ethics approval from the University of British Columbia’s Ethics Board in December 2021, included:

  • While senior leaders share a commitment to diversity and inclusion, most departments do not prioritize seeking and actively hiring candidates from these groups.
  • Canada’s equity legislation is strong on guarding against discrimination during hiring but weak on requirements for recruitment and outreach.
  • Lack of formal education is a major impediment for Indigenous people seeking employment amid the highly competitive fire recruitment environment.
  • Smaller communities tend to lack the skills to manage and encourage diversity hiring. However, these primarily volunteer departments may also serve as a suitable entry point for Indigenous candidates.

Gathering the data

Data collection for the report included a Diversity and Inclusion survey sent to a sample of Canadian fire departments and made available to municipalities through the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators’ website. While the response was too small for robust analysis, the research team were able to assess the results against Statistics Canada and NFPA data in order to draw some broad conclusions.

In general, the NIFSC highlighted widespread deficiencies in fire department demographic data collection and analysis, particularly for diverse populations. This is due in part to the lack of department resources, but also to the reliance on self-reporting for some less-visible groups, which can include Indigenous people, LGBTQ2+ individuals, and some persons with disabilities.

For example, most smaller departments – other than those located in First Nations communities – either do not have personnel from diverse backgrounds or do not collect data on whether members belong to designated groups.

Of the equity groups identified in the fire service, women were the most readily discernable. Although women represent half of the overall population, women make up between three and 4.4 per cent of firefighters across the country and are generally in greater proportion in larger cities.

Most of the other visible minority groups in the fire service – disproportionately recent immigrants – are also concentrated in Canada’s larger centres. Based on the departments responding to the survey, about two per cent of personnel were members of these groups, although they constitute about 5.6 per cent of the population ages 20 to 59.

In terms of Indigenous members, the department survey indicated slightly more than two per cent of firefighters were of Indigenous descent, compared to about three per cent of the general population ages 20 to 59. This differed for First Nations departments and Wildfire Services, where Indigenous people are over-represented in the membership.

Overall, members of visible minority groups and women had larger gaps between their proportion in firefighting and the general population. However, there continues to be a sizeable disparity for Indigenous people.

Analysis and next steps

The researchers considered challenges from the perspective of both potential employers and Indigenous candidates.

For individuals, lack of education is a significant factor holding them back – particularly for the highly contested jobs in career departments. Indigenous people are more than twice as likely as other Canadians to not have graduated from secondary school.

In terms of department challenges, while many leaders expressed concern about employment equity, many were not taking specific action to address the issue. A common weak spot was a lack of strategic outreach to attract diverse candidates, such as publicized success stories, job fairs at schools and colleges, and a strong social media and online presence.

One promising observation was that while diversity hiring is a challenge for small communities, they also potentially present more opportunity for diverse candidates.

In Canada, NFPA’s research shows 95 per cent of Canada’s fire departments serve communities fewer than 25,000 people, and in those areas, 90 per cent of firefighters were volunteer members. These primarily volunteer-based departments are often a steppingstone to full-time jobs in larger departments, and volunteer hiring is generally less competitive than for career positions.

To address the gaps revealed by the research, the report recommends:

  • Requesting changes in federal, provincial and municipal governments to pursue mandated policies and practices for diverse and inclusive hiring, including implementation resource toolkits.
  • Working with career departments to help identify qualified Indigenous applicants, while raising awareness among Indigenous people of fire service career opportunities.
  • Encouraging Indigenous youth interested in the fire services to enhance their education, including obtaining related qualifications such as college certificates in emergency medical practices.
  • Developing programs to support formal skill development for Indigenous people who currently work on First Nations or volunteer fire departments.
  • Lobbying for funding to develop programs and training in equity, diversion and inclusion.
  • Encouraging larger and smaller fire departments alike to develop formal programs and initiatives to track metrics for hiring, retention and talent development.

“We want to be clear that our work is focused on creating awareness and opportunities, not highlighting deficiencies,” Wiggins noted. “We’re looking to forge a new pathway forward, using data to develop solutions that can work in the real world. First Nations people across the country are seeking to improve their situations in all ways, including financial, safety, health and overall well-being. One way to do that is by assisting them in obtaining meaningful employment and developing skills that they can bring back to their communities.”

The new work contributes to the understanding of the Canadian fire sector, in combination with other research such as the CAFC’s census this year of all Canadian fire departments and its 2021 census of volunteer departments.

It is also timely in light of the growing understanding across Canada in recent years about the historic injustices and lack of opportunity for Indigenous and other under-represented communities, and the work taking place in government and the private sector toward reconciliation.

As the report’s authors note: “Diversity and inclusion is a continuous journey. It requires a significant commitment from all levels of government and the various stakeholders to build a culture of inclusion with equitable systems where everyone can thrive.”

A PDF of the report can be viewed by searching NIFSC Diversity and Inclusion at https://indigenousfiresafety.ca/document-library/. For additional information, contact Len Garis at lwgaris@outlook.com

 Len Garis is director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, Fire Chief (ret) for the City of Surrey, B.C., associate scientist emeritus with the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit, adjunct professor in the School of Culture, Media, and Society at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), and a member of the Affiliated Research Faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Contact him at Lwgaris@outlook.com.

 Mandy Desautels is the director of strategic initiatives at the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC). She holds a B.Sc. in global resource systems from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Healthcare Administration from University of British Columbia. Prior to joining AFAC’s National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC) , she worked for BC Emergency Health Services and prominent NGOs. Contact her at MandyD@afac-apac.ca

 


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