A Dialogue from First Nations on Emergency Management Across Canada

by Emily Dicken, University of Victoria and Lily Yumagulova, University of British Columbia

For Indigenous minorities in colonized states, past and present colonial legacies represent the edifice of a catastrophic unnatural disaster that has spanned generations. This decidedly unnatural disaster has eroded the social, cultural and spiritual infrastructure of communities and is tied to impacts such as: rapid depopulation; forms of physical, mental, and social illness; loss of identity, language, cultural practice, religious belief and property; and incomprehensible violence, rapid environmental change and deliberate destruction of materials and places of cultural and ritual significance. For Indigenous communities across Canada, the onslaught of colonization began in the late-1400’s and is still very much alive today in the form of settler colonialism. Present day settler colonialism is understood as an ongoing process where the ultimate goal is to settle and/or control the land as well as eliminate and/or assimilate the Indigenous population by erasing their way of life and being.

When acknowledging colonialism as an unnatural disaster, parallels can be drawn between contemporary settler colonialism and the field of practice of emergency management. From its military roots, the command and control frameworks that guide emergency management have traditionally been approached through the values and understanding that often align with that of the dominant culture. As such, emergency managers often subscribe to professional approaches that exhibit colonial patterns such as legislated government control, paternalistic forms of engagement and forced evacuation from land. Thus, when faced with a disaster, an Indigenous community is not only affected by the immediate impacts of that event, but also by the underlying trauma experienced through the unnatural disaster of colonization.

Within Canada, colonialism remains an ongoing process, shaping both the structure and quality of the relationship between settler society and Indigenous peoples. For emergency management programs, building a respectful relationship involves dismantling a century-old political and bureaucratic culture in which, all too often, policies and programs are still based on failed notions of assimilation. To begin to understand the complex interface between colonialism and disasters, it must first be acknowledged that the outcomes of a natural disaster are often mediated by the unnatural disaster of colonial and post-colonial policies and practices.

To address this complex interface within the field of emergency management, it is critical that practitioners acknowledge what reconciliation means for them, for their organizations and more broadly, within their field of practice. To better understand this, the following table represents concepts and ideas that can start the dialogue on reconciliation. This table is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point to inspire greater dialogue.


At the 2016 Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Conference in Vancouver, BC, co-presenters Lily Yumagulova and Emily Dicken led a session titled A Dialogue from First Nations on Emergency Management Across Canada. This session not only highlighted approaches in understanding colonial legacies as unnatural disasters, it also inspired a dialogue from participants. Through this dialogue, Lily and Emily have written a discussion paper that is available at www.haznet.ca

bio-picEmily Dicken is a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria as well as a practitioner with Emergency Management BC. As an Indigenous academic, Emily is working to explore decolonization within the field of Emergency Management.


lily yumagulova

Lilia Yumagulova is a researcher at University of British Columbia and a coordinator of the “Preparing our Home” program which focuses on enabling the next generation of emergency management leaders in Indigenous communities: www.preparingourhome.ca

Leave a Comment