Fire Protection Management Within On-Reserve First Nations Communities




Acting Captain Alice Cullingford has been a career firefighter since 2001. She also works as a consultant specializing in hegemonic human relations issues, diversity, and employee engagement, attraction and retention for both public and private sector organizations. She holds a Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management.

Compared to the rest of the Canadian population, the number of fire incidents and fire injuries per capita for First Nations is nearly two and a half times greater, and fire fatalities are ten times higher than what is seen in the rest of country (Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation [CMHC], 2007). The majority of fire-related deaths on reserve can be seen as preventable with measures such as the installation of working smoke alarms, fire prevention and education, and increased training of fire crews. However, without first understanding the power imbalances and the greater context of First Nations people, the assessment of fire protection cannot be properly addressed, and is still poorly understood due to the complexity of psychosocial and historical factors dating back to the Indian Act. As a further complication, fire protection cannot be solved in the absence of inter-disciplinary organizations and agencies: the intricacy and delicacy of managing on-reserve life safety issues is such that stakeholder approaches and agendas are varied, and policy regarding First Nations fire protection has often been shaped without the inclusion of First Nations peoples themselves. Even within an atmosphere of a common goal or vision, plans and agendas of one organization often take precedence over another stakeholder’s (King, 2007).


Challenges that exist within First Nations are inherently complex in part due to imbalances of power – be it between the various levels of Canadian government and First Nations, or Band council and its members. This imbalance can create problems in communication due to different views and expectations over what is deemed to be correct and fair (LeBaron, 2015). In addition, solutions are often provided through the lens of outgroups who are often the main cause of cultural conflict and pain. One must be cognizant that culture is not simply limited to being First Nations people, and that many complex strata of subcultures exist within First Nations bands, First Nations groups, and individuals who identify as being First Nations. Adding to the complexity, different governances found on reserves depend on treaties signed that no longer place certain reserves under the auspices of the Indian Act. Further, public organizations, especially those relating to government, are often trapped by procedures limiting effective problem-solving applications (Zweibelson, 2012). Although there are many federal policies, strategies, and initiatives that are currently in place, execution and implementation is not always effective due to lack of infrastructure. Additionally, mandated and consistent implementation of fire inspections is lacking, and fire risk is compounded by overcrowding, unregulated housing construction, poor infrastructure, lack of firefighter training, and in many cases, inadequate community fire safety awareness.

Domain Specificity

First Nations fire protection needs to be addressed via psychosocial, socio-economic, and political disciplines in collaboration with First Nations. Public and private organizations must make proper choices in a timely manner so that actions can be executed effectively. This is especially difficult during a time when challenges specific to First Nations are still not clearly understood, and some approaches–especially misinformed ones–can create more harm than good–draining valuable resources and morale. Büyükdamgacı (2003) provided a sobering statement that “solving the wrong problem may prove to be more detrimental than ignoring the problem altogether” (p. 327). This reinforces the need to ensure that the assessment of fire protection is not addressed without First Nations members and subject matter experts that include, but are not limited to, the areas of fire services management, aboriginal relations, reconciliation, and northern/remote development.


What is unclear is if First Nations want exterior stakeholder help in creating fire protection measures outside the parameters of the provision of federal funding. The assumption is that they do. However, in this current climate for change, one cannot solve challenges that First Nations on-reserve communities face without understanding or being aware of stakeholder cultural biases and agendas. In addition, a major assumption is that some First Nations reserves want out from under the auspices of the Indian Act, or that the communities that are self-governed have the ability, capacity, and resources to manage fire protection.


Emotions surrounding issues that having been plaguing First Nations communities continue to run high, and limit the ability to find solutions suitable to each particular reserve. The problem, however, is that not all stakeholders are necessarily respectful of where First Nations are situated emotionally regardless of what calls to action have been made. Building back trust is a crucial first step that takes time and resources before any other work can begin. Without trust, it is near impossible to build inter-disciplinary collaborative processes between governments and First Nations councils, public and private stakeholders, the media, and the public.

Closing thoughts

There are many federal fire protection frameworks that are currently in place to help support the need for safety and inclusion. However, due to the contentious history the federal government has had with First Nations, well-meaning actions may not always be readily received. All stakeholders need to be cognizant that some approaches and applications of fire protection strategies in many on-reserve First Nations communities can create an unhealthy and unsustainable cycle of dependency, and the social issues that contribute to the effective implementation of fire protection programs need to be examined. Because each on-reserve community varies socially, economically, politically, and geographically, the solutions to First Nations fire protection is complex and culture-specific. Many answers can be found by looking at pre-existing data available from other federal and international organizations, provided that the information is applicable in a First Nations and Canadian context. Ultimately, success requires buy-in and ownership: First Nations leaders and band members, armed with proper knowledge, training, and resources, can help to find sustainable solutions that are specific to their particular region. Calls to action addressing governments, institutions, and agencies can lead the way in creating fire protection mandates and mechanisms that will have far-reaching positive impact on all Canadians and First Nations.


Büyükdamgacı, G. (2003) ‘Process of organizational problem definition: How to evaluate and how to improve’, Omega, 31(4), pp. 327–338. doi: 10.1016/s0305-0483(03)00029-x.

Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation. (2007). Fire prevention in aboriginal communities. Retrieved from

King, D. (2007) ‘Organisations in disaster’, Natural Hazards, 40(3), pp. 657–665. doi: 10.1007/s11069-006-9016-y.

LeBaron, M. (2015). ‘Intercultural conflict transformation’, In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The Sage encyclopedia of intercultural competence, pp. 496-500. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zweibelson, B. (2012). ‘Seven design theory considerations: An approach to ill-structured problems’, Military Review, 92(6), pp. 80-89.


Leave a Comment