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.