Community resilience: interview with Todd Kuiack

Interview with Todd Kuiack, Emergency Management Director – ‎ Indigenous Services Canada

By Lilia Yumagulova

As part of HazNet’s Indigenous disaster risk reduction leaders series, we interviewed Todd Kuiack about his team´s work at Indigenous Services Canada in supporting community resilience in First Nation communities. Mr. Kuiack brings years of foreign service experience to his current position.

Todd Kuiack is currently serving as the Director of Emergency Management for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). Prior to joining ISC, Todd held a number of positions in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Development including as the Director of Management Services in the Office of Protocol; Director of the Area Management Office for the Asia Pacific Branch; Director of the Visits and Operations Division in the Bilateral Relations Branch; Senior Advisor to the Assistant Deputy Minister of Human Resources, with responsibility for communications and addressing the issues of spousal employment and teleworking; as well as Director of Cabinet and Parliamentary Affairs. His postings overseas include Mexico, Chile, Cuba, and most recently as the Ambassador to the Dominican Republic from 2009 to 2012. While in the Dominican Republic, the Earthquake in Haiti next door saw him lead the evacuation of over 100 Canadians, as well as work with local authorities on emergency management issues following the Earthquake. Todd has been recognized by the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada in their circle of excellence. He has been an active member of the Indigenous Resiliency Working Group and has led many workshops and round tables on Increasing Resiliency in Indigenous Communities at the Canadian National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. He was chosen to make the declaration at the UNISDR global platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun on behalf of the Indigenous working group after taking part in the panel for Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Knowledge for building Resiliency in 2017.
Todd holds a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Physical Geography from York University and is married with two children.

LY: Could you please tell us about your background (your home community, your educational and professional paths) that brought you to your current position?

TK: I am from a small town of about 200 people called Madawaska which is in Ontario, near Algonquin Park. I’m the youngest of eight children in a family that has an Aboriginal mother. She’s Algonquin. We’re members of the Golden Lake First Nation or the Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, a reserve close by. My father is from Wilno, Ontario. He’s Polish. Don’t ask me how they met – it’s a long story!

At the time, I was the only one from Madawaska to go to university; I know there have been others since. I wanted to go to university to study Environmental Science and Physical Geography so I enrolled in a science program at York University with help from my First Nation. I’m very grateful for the funding that they were able to provide through their educational program – it helped me continue my studies into my Masters.

When I was doing my Masters in Science, I ended up writing the Foreign Service exam. I passed the exam, went through an interview and ended up being offered a position with Foreign Affairs. They trained me in French for a year, then they sent me on core courses on how to become a diplomat working overseas, followed by some Spanish training and voila, I spent eight years in Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Cuba. Then, after seven years back in Ottawa to have two children, I went to the Dominican Republic as ambassador on my last posting. Through all of those positions overseas, I was always involved with emergency management from the point of view of on-the-ground preparedness. As I went on in my career, I would work with the local government in disaster risk reduction. This allowed me to see the connectivity between governance and infrastructure, education, economic development and emergency management, so it provided a very good holistic view on how to reduce the risk around these types of catastrophes.

LY: Could you take us back to that day when you had to execute an evacuation?

TK: I was in the Dominican Republic as the ambassador when the large earthquake hit next door in Haiti. We felt it in the capital Santo Domingo. Getting the reports that an earthquake hit very close to the capital city of Port-au-Prince put us all into action. We knew that we were OK and confirmed with all of our folks that there was no tsunami warning. But trying to reach out and get our colleagues on the other side of the island, to make sure that they were OK… I remember that night very well. It was very late by the time we got through by satellite phone to our ambassador in Haiti. We had been working with Haiti on many initiatives, including reforestation of the river basin that they share with the Dominican Republic. It hit me that there were obviously some huge issues around emergency management and the link to poverty and vulnerable communities. So when we had the earthquake that devastated and killed 200,000 people and left over one million homeless, that put a lot of pressure on the Dominican Republic and it also showed the best of the country’s nature by sending in aid right away. Despite some tense times throughout the history of the two countries, they certainly did help one another. We evacuated 101 Canadians that first night when the Hercules airplane came in from the CAF and arranged for medical assistance, food and shelter, etc. It was one of those times that you realize these types of disasters can happen at a moment’s notice and it can change people’s lives forever.

LY: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from this disaster diplomacy?

TK: Two to three days after the event in Haiti we had a large-scale conference hosted by the Dominican Republic. We flew President Preval across the border in a UN helicopter to bring him to this conference. He was still wearing the same shirt that he had on when the earthquake hit. The same suit. He hadn’t slept. He was obviously exhausted. I arranged for Preval to speak with our Prime Minister at the time to reassure him that Canada would stand with the country and provide assistance. The coordination of all the countries working together, including some as far away as Australia (a country that is not in the same hemisphere and has no  natural economic or cultural relations with Haiti), that were providing millions of dollars of assistance through country-to-country donations really underlined how these types of disasters bring the global community together.

LY: What impact can Canadians make for disaster resilience abroad?

TK: One example is an organization that started off with a Canadian tourist that was living in the Dominican Republic. He walked up to me at a reception (he wasn’t invited to the reception) and introduced himself. He had a crazy idea of getting fire trucks into the Dominican Republic. While the Dominican Republic is much better off compared to Haiti, it is by no means a rich country. It has the wonderful resorts that we are all familiar with as Canadians, but there is long-standing poverty. Some communities are missing the very basics of infrastructure and facilities like fire trucks. His dream in the aftermath of the earthquake was to put a fire truck on one of the incoming Hercules while we were still sending many, many containers of goods and troops to assist overall on the Haitian side. So he used his contacts to do this; the Hercules landed and got fuel in the Dominican Republic, flew the short trip over to Haiti, and helped with the evacuation of Canadians. The fire truck came off that Hercules airplane with a Canadian flag on it. The people of the Dominican Republic were able to use the truck wherever they wished to send it. Since that time, I know that many donations have been received, not just in the Dominican Republic, but in other countries in the area. But it was this one Canadian, who led a small group of Canadians to band together, that took gently-used fire equipment to countries and communities that otherwise would not have any.

I believe each person has a role to play to help others and become involved. They do what they can and use the talents that they have to increase resiliency in their communities. Now, having a fire truck is just one step, of course; training on how to use equipment that goes with the fire truck takes a little bit of a budget to maintain that fire truck, etc. This is where I feel larger communities can play a role. Certainly, as the Canadian ambassador, I was able to talk with other companies, tourist companies, and hotels that were interested to use fire trucks to keep their communities safe.

LY: Given your Foreign Service experience, what are some of the key lessons that you bring to your work on Indigenous disaster resilience in Canada?

TK: My overseas experience is really an advantage. We have many First Nations that wish to build up their resiliency to ensure their communities are safe. This is no different than all of the communities that we work with overseas. I think the uniqueness lies is in the many Indigenous communities in Canada that are trying to use Traditional Knowledge to ensure their communities are safe. For example, in Saskatchewan, a FireSmart program works closely with the Indigenous communities on the ground to ensure that their communities are safe by reduction of fuel. I think buy-in from the local communities is essential  for these types of programs to take hold.

First Nations communities know the lay of the land, the history of the area, and most are in tune with the local environment. This is something we’ve learned overseas: you can’t just parachute an idea into a community and hope that it takes hold; you have to let the idea unfold in an organic way by working hand-in-hand with your partners and your stakeholders.

LY: In a context of acute daily pressures, when there are very basic needs that aren’t met, emergency management can be seen as a bit of a luxury. Are there any other parallels with Indigenous communities in Canada and communities that you worked with overseas in regard to the overall state of emergency management regimes?

TK: Certainly our leaders and the leaders of overseas Indigenous communities are continuously trying to balance a budget with all sorts of conflicting priorities. I’ve been very lucky to go into First Nations communities and speak with people on the ground. I’ve also spoken with Tribal Councils and larger national Indigenous organizations. They all say the same thing: you cannot separate economic development, infrastructure and education from emergency management. Each one is essential when you’re trying to support a resilient community.

On my wall I have a diagram of supporting community resilience to enhance Indigenous emergency management. At the heart of this diagram is community resilience, which is surrounded by four quadrants of emergency management, economic development, education and infrastructure.

Similarly, you can have the best thought-out emergency management plan, but if you have economic challenges or if the infrastructure is really not sufficient to withstand a good rainstorm much less flooding, then we’re going to have issues around emergency management.

You have to make sure that when we are building back that we’re building back better. We’re following the Sendai Framework, which Canada has signed on to, so that when a community is affected we work with them in order to avoid a repeat of this disaster.

LY: In your opinion, what are some of the key challenges and opportunities for Indigenous disaster resilience in Canada?

TK: We’re really excited about the research that we’ve been doing. We shared this research at the CRHNet Symposium and at the National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. We spoke about two aspects of evacuees: evacuations in Canada and First Nations evacuations in Canada. The major finding is that First Nations evacuations on-reserve tend to happen at a much higher rate.

Our data shows that over the last 30 years there is a 33 times greater chance of being evacuated due to wildfires if you’re living on a First Nations reserve as opposed to off-reserve.

I’m very proud of my team; they track this data very closely. They know the communities that are affected. We aggregate the data so that we’re compliant in terms of privacy, but when we look at the aggregate numbers there is an 18 times greater chance of being evacuated from a reserve due to any type of disaster, be it flooding, wildfire, or a tornado, than off-reserve. And even when we start to eliminate larger cities and start comparing oranges to oranges—looking at smaller communities—the numbers are still much higher.

There is a large standard deviation, however: one year, in 2015, residents had a 500 times greater chance of being evacuated compared to 2016. With the Fort McMurray wildfire, it was a six times greater chance. Based on the data available for 2017, it was the second-worst year in terms of on-reserve evacuations, since we started to collect these numbers over 10 years ago. The worst was in 2011 with the floods in Manitoba where we had 20,000 people evacuated. For 2017, we had 15,000 evacuated from a large diversity of emergencies (floods in the spring, fire in the summer); but people tend to forget those floods because we had such a large and long forest fire season that affected BC in unprecedented numbers.

We also saw over 7,000 people evacuated in Manitoba this year due to floods and wildfires. Our big priority was to get people back home as quickly as possible. We’re very proud to say that despite over 15,000 people being evacuated that 99.7% of them have returned home. At the time of this interview, less than 100 people were yet to return home due to the forest fire and flood evacuations this year. We believe this is because of the policies that we’ve been changing internally to make it easier for people to understand the process to follow to get assessed and start to rebuild their homes – and to build back better.

LY: We hear anecdotally from First Nations across the country that a very well-intentioned evacuation process can trigger residential school trauma, as soon as people see cots, etc. Is Indigenous Services Canada doing any work on culturally sensitive practices for evacuation and other disaster risk reduction activities?

TK: I’ve been going to Parliament these last few weeks as part of a Parliamentary Committee on the wildfires of last summer. I’ve been listening to different First Nations speak and yes, this is something that an MP in BC noted.

Many Indigenous evacuees went to the powwow grounds, a culturally appropriate space for Indigenous people as well as a safe space. When I was on the ground in Kamloops during the evacuation, I spoke with the local representative from the Native Women’s Association of Canada.  She showed me how they had safe spaces specifically for women; single mothers, elders, and youth are disproportionately affected – no different than vulnerable communities worldwide.

We would be remiss not to take steps to ensure that these communities during a disaster are properly treated and protected. So I was very happy to see that.

Still, there are steps we have to take in other parts of our country, as noted this summer in Manitoba. The issue, as you pointed out, of PTSD from residential school trauma, and the related generational trauma is something that has come up in different provinces at different times and it is triggered in certain situations. I’m very proud to have worked with people like Dr. Brenda Murphy and Dr. Laurie Pearce on sponsoring their program on interviewing evacuees. First person accounts are recorded on video and are posted on our website.

We hear in their own words their emotions and perspectives throughout being evacuated. What comes out through their stories is extra stress.

I think that it is really important that we understand this: no one wants to be evacuated; Indigenous people do not want to be evacuated from their homes, and they want to get back home and get back to a normal life as quickly as possible.

We see this with the floods here in Gatineau with Canadians who don’t live on-reserve. After six months, they still haven’t returned home and they say “you know, living in a hotel is just so stressful.” That stress for Indigenous people on-reserve is also very real. We take that into account every day: we are not working just for the Canadian government; we are also working on behalf of all the First Nations and especially the ones that are out of their homes wishing to get back home as quickly as possible after an evacuation.

For me, it’s so important that we mitigate these disasters to make sure they don’t have to evacuate. The example that I used at the conference was the approximately $5 million that was spread out among 23 First Nations communities, who identified the work needed to mitigate floods in southern Manitoba. The work was then carried out by First Nations people on-reserve to move stones, break up ice, clean out culverts, put out sandbags, put up Tiger Dams, and hold training sessions so they’re aware of what to do during a flood.

This was all done ahead of the flood season so that when the waters did rise, when the snow did melt, that very few people were affected by flooding.

And that saved not just money, but lives affected; these 23 communities had 32,000 people living there approximately. Imagine the cost if each one of these people had to be evacuated due to flooding and their homes had to be repaired.The average per evacuee per flood event is $34,000 according to our internal data. With 32,000 people potentially affected, that’s a great deal of money potentially directed towards response and recovery. By mitigating, we not only saved resources, we helped prevent the social and psychological costs of evacuation.

This is why our job is to ensure that we’re taking into consideration each and every person and to really recognize all of these evacuees and all the people that are living on First Nation reserves do not want to be evacuated.

LY: What could the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction mean at the community level in Canada?

TK: I believe that the Sendai Framework will allow different levels of government and communities to agree on a shared vision of what a resilient community could look like. It will give a more holistic perspective on how to improve disaster risk reduction. Building back better is just one aspect of this framework, but I can see how important it is for us to adapt to the changing environment to be better prepared. An example specific to flooding is an 18-inch culvert should be replaced if it is not large enough to withstand more frequent flooding. Bringing academics, politicians, and local Indigenous knowledge together to mitigate disasters is very powerful.

LY: What role can Canada play in this field internationally (reflection on the meetings in Cancun)?

TK: I sat on a working session for the Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Knowledge for Building Resilience in Cancun. It was chaired by the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United Nations as well as community leaders from Garifuna, Honduras. The chair was an Indigenous woman from Honduras who brought an important Indigenous knowledge perspective: it is the whole aspect of preserving cultural heritage, which includes Indigenous knowledge, as key to disaster risk reduction in the sense that this contributes to a body of knowledge.

Watch a Joint Statement on behalf of Indigenous Peoples at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction 2017

The example that I used in my speech was how the remains of the Franklin expedition in northern Canada was found in a bay that literally translates from Inuit to “the bay where the ship went down.” So if they would have just searched there, to begin with, I think they would have found it a lot earlier. Madeline Redford, the mayor of Iqaluit and an Inuit herself, really liked that example as a way of showing that there’s a lot of obvious Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge that should be taken into account.

LY: What advice do you have for Indigenous youth?

TK: Obviously I’m biased towards education. For me, being able to travel the world and to see other societies and other cultures has really made me appreciate my own culture. There is a great connection between listening to your Elders and hearing their stories with a lot of knowledge and wisdom that can bestow upon you when you are travelling. Really, it’s just the toughest question because I don’t want to come off as preachy or anything like that, but when it comes to Indigenous youth, I never thought that I would end up as ambassador to the Dominican Republic. I really did not see that in the cards. But if you’re open to experiences and you keep following your dreams and your passions and then find out what you’re good at, the world will recognize you and you’ll end up doing some interesting work – and in my case very important work that affects a lot of people.