By Mackenzie Deschambault, BA Law and Human Rights
This article is a reflection of Mackenzie’s experience as an Indigenous Masters student working with the Emergency Management Directorate in a ‘First Nations First’ environment; this type of environment includes full collaboration and partnership with Indigenous partners, with Indigenous concerns at the forefront of discussion. As someone who has dedicated many years of research to Indigenous legal issues, Mackenzie found it was rewarding to work within a departmental shift which has welcomed a new mandate, placing emphasis on partnership and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Given the increasing severity of disasters on Indigenous communities, it is crucial that individuals are made aware of Emergency Management and that its practice continues to engage and collaborate with First Nation peoples to ensure that Indigenous communities have the same access to resources and training that non-Indigenous people benefit from. Beyond that, the Emergency Management Directorate has committed to working alongside these communities to ensure not only recovery but a promise of building back better.
As an Indigenous student that has dedicated seven years to studying Indigenous Law and coming into the government with very little knowledge about Emergency Management on reserve, I am happy to say that the experience has been very uplifting, especially in regard to the progress being made to ensure Indigenous communities are facing the same protections and access to opportunities as other Canadians in times of distress. My employment opportunity with the Emergency Management Directorate allowed me to delve first hand into the emergencies which Indigenous communities are facing; such as flood and fire, severe weather, and loss of essential services. However, this opportunity has also allowed me to see the progress being made within Indigenous communities to better protect themselves from these effects by building back better and forming partnerships with the Government of Canada.
Prone to Disasters
First Nation communities are 18 times more likely than their off-reserve counterparts to be evacuated due to emergencies; since 2009, over 80,000 on-reserve residents have had to leave their homes due to emergencies such as fire and flood (Emergency Management Directorate, Report Pending Publication). First Nation residents also face risks from natural/environmental and public health emergencies due to realities such as remoteness, community size, and inadequate or non-existent infrastructure.
A Shift in Mandate, Partnership as a Priority
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC)i is undergoing a departmental shift and has welcomed a new mandate placing emphasis on partnership and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. As an Indigenous person, this shift brings comfort to me knowing that Canada’s largest governance structure is working towards a partnership with Indigenous peoples and working to fix an institution that is not working in the best interest of all Canadians. Having done my master’s thesis on the colonial implications of the Indian Actii of 1985 which is one of the founding pieces of Indian legislation still entrenched within the government structure, it is important to see the advancement of opportunity, collaboration, and education that the Emergency Management Directorate (the Directorate) has fully integrated into the work of the Emergency Management Assistance Program (the Program).
Emergency Management Kashechewan Flood Example
In partnership with First Nation communities/organizations, provincial and territorial governments and non-government organizations, the Program supports First Nation communities in accessing emergency management services under the emergency management pillars of preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery as needed. One of the Program priorities is the provision of funding to First Nation communities so they themselves can enhance their resiliency, prepare for natural or human-caused hazards, and respond to them under all four pillars of emergency management. The Program strives to be flexible and culturally sensitive and has taken the important steps of incorporating these elements into program policies.
In 2014 the Kashechewan First Nation flooded, resulting in an evacuation of 454 First Nation evacuees. The Emergency Management Directorate has been supporting in the rebuild of 104 units for the replacement of 36 homes, in order to help relieve overcrowding and to Build Back Better. Through its Build Back Better policy, the Program was able to support a decision by the Band leadership to no longer build houses with basements in order to reduce the risk of flooding. Since the basements were livable spaces, the spaces had to be replaced, which presented the opportunity to rebuild the same housing area while also addressing an overcrowding issue. With the same square footage, overcrowding was reduced by building back 52 duplexes, which resulted in the reduction of occupancy from 12.5 people to 4.5 people per household, more in line with the national average.
Emergency Management Wildland Fire Example
An astonishing 80% of Indigenous communities in Canada are located in forested areas, prone to wildland fire (Amy Christianson, 2015, p.190). With wildland fires increasing in severity and frequency, traditional fire suppression methods involving the deployment of vast resources are decreasing in effectiveness. In an effort to alleviate pressure on fire suppression agencies, and the risk posed to First Nation communities, a proactive approach was developed to protect communities and critical infrastructure referred to as Indigenous FireSmart.iii
FireSmart is a multi-faceted initiative intended to reduce vulnerabilities in the wildland-urban interface; it is an all-encompassing initiative which involves community leaders, community members, firefighters, emergency personnel, industry partners, and third-party stakeholders all working together to reduce wildland fire vulnerabilities and risks in First Nation communities across Canada.
Since 2015, the Program has supported a highly successful FireSmart pilot project with the Prince Albert Grand Council which represents twelve First Nation communities in Saskatchewan’s north. In more recent years, at-risk communities in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories have also become part of the Indigenous FireSmart community. This pilot project has become crucial in assisting high-risk First Nation communities to mitigate the impacts of wildland fires. As someone who is new to government, it makes me proud to work within a team that is dedicated to ensuring that new program initiatives succeed and that these initiatives are ever improving the relationship between First Nation communities and the Federal Government.
All photos provided with permission from the Emergency Management Directorate.
[i] Please see ISC homepage: https://www.canada.ca/en/indigenous-services-canada.html
Please see official mandate: https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1539284416739/1539284508506
Please see Departmental Plan 2018-2019: https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1523374573623/1523904791460
[ii] Please see the Indian Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. I-5): https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/i-5/
[iii] Please see FireSmart homepage: https://www.firesmartcanada.ca/
Christianson, A. (2015) Social Science Research on Indigenous Wildfire Management in the 21st Century and Future Research Needs. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 24.2: 190-200.
All of the statistics above come from the Emergency Management Directorate and are results of data collected after emergencies; the data is accessible either through EMD databases, reports pending publication or statistics.
Mackenzie Deschambault (Biography)
I am an Indigenous Masters student studying at Carleton University. I am writing my thesis on the Colonial Implications of the Indian Act on Indigenous Women in Canada. I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in Law and Human Rights and have dedicated many years to Indigenous legal issues, knowledge and histories.