Six Na­tions braces for dis­as­ter

Ready for the worst as fire depart­ment strug­gles to stay afloat


A string of sus­pected ar­sons, in­ex­pe­ri­enced vol­un­teer staff and a truck lad­der that isn’t high enough hasn’t stopped the fire depart­ment at Canada’s most pop­u­lated First Na­tion from scrap­ing by.

But as the Six Na­tions of the Grand River unit in south­west­ern On­tario grap­ples with re­lent­less emer­gency calls, reg­u­lar staff turnover and a con­stant strug­gle to make ends meet, its fire chief says he’s brac­ing for an in­evitable dis­as­ter.

Matthew Miller said his depart­ment has about twice the call vol­ume and one third of the fund­ing as sim­i­larly sized mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, even though fed­eral gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics show First Na­tions peo­ple on re­serves are about 10 times more likely to die in fires.

“As it is right now, we’re barely hang­ing on by a thread,” Miller said of serv­ing the on-re­serve pop­u­la­tion of about 12,000.

“Es­sen­tially what’s hap­pen­ing is ev­ery­body is get­ting ex­hausted and pushed to their lim­its phys­i­cally and men­tally.”

The crew serv­ing the First Na­tion con­sists of 21 part-time vol­un­teers who have sep­a­rate full-time jobs, and many haven’t been prop­erly trained.

Miller said he usu­ally gets two or three emer­gency calls ev­ery day — or about 700 per year — but if that num­ber gets any higher, the depart­ment won’t be able to han­dle it.

“It’s just a recipe for dis­as­ter, for some­thing re­ally bad to hap­pen,” he said.

So far this year, the com­mu­nity has dealt with 10 house fires, a large chem­i­cal fire at its re­cy­cling fa­cil­ity and nine sus­pected ar­sons cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Neigh­bour­ing de­part­ments are of­ten called in to help with larger emer­gen­cies, some­thing Miller called a “Band-Aid so­lu­tion.”

Yasir Naqvi, the province’s min­is­ter of com­mu­nity safety and cor­rec­tional ser­vices, toured Six Na­tions on June 6 to re­view its emer­gency ser­vices af­ter re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion from Chief Ava Hill.

Naqvi said he will be ask­ing his fed­eral coun­ter­parts to ad­dress the com­mu­nity’s fire safety con­cerns, and Miller wrote to fed­eral Lib­eral Leader Justin Trudeau about the is­sue on Wed­nes­day.

Abo­rig­i­nal Af­fairs and North­ern De­vel­op­ment Canada said in a state­ment that it pro­vides $26 mil­lion an­nu­ally for fire pro­tec­tion on re­serves across the coun­try.

“Our re­gional of­fice is in reg­u­lar con­tact with the Six Na­tions of the Grand River First Na­tion,” it said. “We also know that ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness play an in­te­gral role in fire safety and we will con­tinue to work with First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties and pro­vide an­nual fund­ing (to fire ed­u­ca­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions).”

Miller said First Na­tions across Canada are fac­ing the same is­sues be­cause there is no leg­isla­tive frame­work to man­date fire preven­tion and pro­tec­tion like there is for most off-re­serve com­mu­ni­ties.

“First Na­tions re­ceive fund­ing for fire pro­tec­tion only, not what ev­ery other fire ser­vice in the world does,” he said. “If you’re in a car ac­ci­dent and you get trapped in your car, we could put the fire out, but we’re not funded to get you out of your car.”


Six Na­tions Fire Depart­ment Fire Chief Matthew Miller poses in Oh­sweken, Ont.

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