Adaptation = Resilience = Sustainability: an interview with David A. Diablo

d-a-diaboTahawennon:tie David A. Diablo is Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) from Kahnawke, QC. Mr Diablo, BTech/Emergency Management is a Special Advisor, Emergency Management Directorate, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and a Co-Chair of the Indigenous Resilience Working Group which was recently formed under Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

by Lily Yumagulova

Lily: How is Emergency Management of the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Metis communities organized (governance structure, roles and responsibilities)? What is the role of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and the Emergency Management Assistance Program, in particular? What other organizations play key roles in this process?

David: For First Nations, INAC requires First Nation communities to have an emergency plan and to exercise that emergency plan. That is the most basic requirement. But it is up to the community, given that most emergency events start at the local level, to have the capacity and development to be able to address whatever event is happening in the community whether it is a small scale disaster or escalating. The position is usually a certified emergency management officer or emergency management coordinator so it hinges on the band council system. It’s one of their service programs. The roles and responsibilities are pretty basic. They have to do an assessment of their community or if it’s out of date to update it given that the community will expand and grow over time. New hazards are introduced into the hazardscape and they have to be addressed within the plan. The plan will tell them what the hazards are, how to mitigate them through training, exercise.

The role of INAC in this and EMAP in particular is that the non-structural mitigation and emergency preparedness part of the program, the part that I manage, will fund non-structural mitigation. We’ll fund assessments, studies, flood plain mapping. So it’s the soft side of the structural element: any of the technical documents that would support a structural mitigation project at some point in the future.  This is what non-structural mitigation does. The emergency preparedness part of it is awareness, training, plan development, revision, cooperative and collaborative relationships with their surrounding municipalities, integrating the plan into the regional plan so everybody can work together.

The organizations that play a role in the process could be provincial emergency management organizations. They being the service providers, INAC will pay for the service which will be delivered from the province. And they have to work cooperatively and collaboratively with First Nations in delivering this emergency response service. They all have to work together. Everybody is playing from the same game book there’s nothing too different from region to region. Really the only difference is what hazards are being addressed within their emergency management regimes as they’ll change from province to province. And even from community to community at times, because some are more developed than others, some are more remote, for example, or have fewer services.

Lily: Does INAC provide any planning guidance or support mechanisms or any materials to guide this planning process or is it really bottom-up community driven primarily?

David: It’s primarily bottom-up, driven by the community. INAC does provide funding support for those communities to develop emergency management regimes, whether that’s a non-structural mitigation project or an emergency preparedness project that will run through that portion of the EMAP program that covers those two streams: non-structural mitigation and emergency preparedness.

We have various sizes of projects, some as small as $10,000, some as big as $2 million and they cover a variety of things, but we tell them first make sure you have your assessment done, make sure you know you’re familiar with the environment and what the risks and hazards are and then develop your plan from there and the funding support usually is given to these types of projects. For example in the west we funded tsunami training, but they’re also looking at earthquake training too, because those are the two major hazards in the west. Whereas in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they have old growth forests and they’re prone to wildland interface fires and wildfires. So we were developing the funding mechanism for the FireSmart program in those heavily forested regions.

We also do the regular stuff like emergency operations centre training, incident management system training, introduction to emergency management in Canada, emergency management for elected officials—all of the basic courses that anyone developing the emergency management regime would need to take and then refresh from time to time.

Lily: You are personally very involved as one of the leaders and champions in this field nationally. What are some of the recent developments that you would like to share with our readers?

David: Oh, well, I’m co-chair of the Indigenous Resilience Working Group (WG) which is the newest WG under Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. Originally there were three WGs: the Private sector, the Volunteer sector and the Resilient Communities WG. So under the Resilient Communities WG there was the Aboriginal Resilience sub-working group, but I felt under the new Liberal government and their mandate of reconciliation, engagement and consultation, and also under the new Sendai Framework driving the platform which contains components for Indigenous people, I felt instead of being a sub-working group we should be our own stand-alone group representing Indigenous people across Canada. So I pushed forward on the Indigenous Resilience Working Group and I was granted status by the Advisory Committee of the Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and we became our own group just a few months ago.

My co-chair is Dr. Brenda Murphy of Wilfred Laurier University. Our group is basically operating as it was before, except that we’re now a stand-alone working group, and we’re looking at First Nations communities in regards to the way they develop their resiliency to disasters and develop their emergency management regimes. We also expanded the group to include those Indigenous practitioners to our membership. We are hoping to have our core group include the Indigenous Representative Organizations: the Assembly of First Nations, the Metis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Being an Indigenous Resiliency working group, it has to have an Indigenous voice. So we are asking Indigenous groups to become members. It doesn’t have to be the president or the national chief, but it could be a designate, who will represent their organization, and participate on whatever initiative we’re working on at the time.

We’re also inviting and have membership from the Indigenous technical organizations, like the First Nations Emergency Services Society in British Columbia, the Alberta First Nations Technical Service Advisory Group, Ontario First Nations and Technical Services Corporation…these are the on-the-ground practitioners and the actual operational service providers of emergency management in the communities. They are directly involved with them and they have a lot of information and knowledge that we’re looking to bring to the group. We’ve invited them and they accepted and they’re going to be part of our core group. Beyond that, we have various members of different organizations across the provinces and territories that also want to work with the IRWG, and we call them the “contributing members.”  When an issue comes up that needs to be considered for Indigenous people, then it will be considered by the group as a whole but the indigenous core group will speak to the issue.

Also, the Canadian Risks and Hazards Network — that’s a different kind of organization. I help bring the indigenous component to it, and help Dr. Brenda Murphy manage the Indigenous stream of their Annual Symposium. We look at the four pillars of emergency management (including resilience) and invite Indigenous communities to come down and present their stories at the annual symposium. If they’ve had an evacuation event then they’ll come and tell us how they handled it, what went right, or what went wrong, and how they’ve learned from it. And any of the four pillars of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. If they’ve had an event in any one of those areas that they’d like to share practices and that kind of thing and learn from other communities’ presentations, we invite them to present on it. The academic presenters come and talk about statistical data on an environmental issue, or an atmospheric issue, or even climate change; they can come present their findings to the symposium audience. It could be relevant to First Nations given that they’re living out on the land.

So those are two of the main groups I’m involved with. Working here at INAC I get the opportunity to add my two cents here and there on policies and procedures that are happening.

In fact I just came from a Public Safety Canada meeting. I was invited over there. It was a group that was presenting an initiative that they’re starting at a grassroots level. They’re calling themselves “The Guardians”. Basically what they do is they get involved within their community, in their region, and they do a lot of monitoring type work for the environment, for the animals, for the water, the air, the land. And they work cooperatively and collaboratively with various provincial ministries and federal departments, and share their information and their findings. They’re by no means a professional group; they’re not certified or qualified really in any way, they’re really just a grassroots organization that basically just invites people to participate in the caring for the land.

So that was a very interesting presentation that they gave us. There’s a lot of overlap for some of the work that we do like FireSmart. They are interested in preparing their communities in the event of a wildfire, fuel management, that sort of thing, adopting the FireSmart concepts. We spoke about the education and awareness pieces that they could be interested in pursuing regarding emergency preparedness and that kind of thing for training and getting them prepared to a certain level. We can fund stuff like that so it would help in a small way to get the group developed for bigger initiatives but it’s a good start for them and they need to start somewhere. So this is as good a place as any. They have a really nice cultural component in bringing in the elders and working with the youth and getting everybody involved and reattached to their community…being in the environment and understanding why it’s this way and why you should be involved.

Lily: What are some of the stories of Indigenous Disaster Resilience (e.g. planning examples, models of organizing, projects) across Canada that keep you inspired to do this work? 

David: Well, really one thing about this line of work that immediately jumped out at me: there’s a real lack of capacity and development in emergency management for First Nations. They’re really behind; they really need to take hold of their emergency management regimes. Through the course of my work at Assembly of First Nations I didn’t have so much impact or reach, and  although I was passing along a lot of information and getting a lot of information, there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done until I came to work at INAC and the Emergency Management Director put me in charge of the non-structural mitigation and the emergency preparedness part of the EMAP program. Then my reach extended right across Canada and I had more direct contact with the First Nations, and I can get directly involved with what they’re doing in their community when it comes to their emergency management and the development of their emergency management regimes. I could see where they were missing components and if they didn’t start with the first step and tried to jump to the third step, then I had to give them some advice: “Go back to the first step, make sure you get your assessments done so you know what you’re working with as far as risks and hazards, and how you’re going to mitigate them”. So basically it’s just working with the First Nations and helping them to develop their emergency management regime because there was a huge gap in the program that was way out of touch with their non-First Nation neighbors, who they ended up relying on heavily for emergency response services. But slowly through the use of this program and funding various areas of training and doing assessment for First Nations we’re able to bring them up to a better standard than what they had before. Some of them are well above the provincial standard — the more advanced communities–but there are still a lot of smaller communities that have a long way to go. They’re just starting to understand now that stuff on the outside can affect them, and stuff they do on the inside can affect people on the outside; so this idea of cooperative and collaborative relationships is really starting to take hold now. One of the things that I noticed a few years ago was it was time for this to happen. The First Nations are no longer looking for a hand out; they’re looking for a hand up…to help them develop their emergency management regimes so they can take care of it themselves as best they can, and not have to wait for the provinces to respond.

Lily: First Nations also offer a helping hand. In many contexts they are the first responders. When the boats capsize or the fire goes through, they rescue and welcome people and I think it’s a really changing relationship that way.

David: It is. It’s funny you bring up that very example because of the effective emergency response for the whale watching boat that turned over… None of them were trained. They just responded instinctively to help people. Unfortunately, some people [in the whale watching boat] died but they were able to save a pregnant woman and an 80-year old woman in the water: that’s a real success story. And now, because of their initiative to just help human beings, they’re being incorporated into the emergency management regimes in the area and they’re going to be given specialized training. They’re calling it Coastal Resilience training – these guys are at the forefront because they reached out to help. And that is an incredibly inspiring story.

Another success story is with Chief Tammy Cooke – Searson in Saskatchewan, who handled an emergency evacuation all by herself because their emergency management regime was not as developed as they would like it to be; but just because of that there’s attention in their area and they’re going to be getting training that they need also from the Prince Albert Band Council who also did a successful evacuation of a community, and as a result, we’re funding a project for them to give training to their communities, not within the entire region, but within their reach where they are in the north, and then the next year if they’re successful and they’ve completed their project, we can look at helping them reach out to the southern communities. It’s the stories like this that are really and truly inspiring. First Nations shouldn’t shy away from doing this; you can actually do this and be successful at it.

Lily: What do you see as some of the key areas of work for youth, especially Indigenous youth or students and aspiring professionals entering this field of practice? As you said there was this huge gap that you identified when you first came in, so looking at the road ahead: what is your vision of what is the most urgent and needed work that still remains to be done?

David: The overall development of emergency management regimes for First Nations people. The parents are busy with their jobs and the elderly people are enjoying their retirement and then we have this component of this community, the youth, who want to do something. So it’s a good area for them to get involved and to learn about emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. They don’t have to follow that as a career, but they could if they wanted. Given that a lot of the volunteers that participate in emergency events are spontaneous, if youth and youth groups and students truly want to help, then there’s got to be some way we can reach out to them to give them formalized training so that when they do volunteer they’re actually ready to do something, because they have the type of training they need. There are lots of schools that give certificates, Bachelor’s degrees, Masters degrees and PhDs in this area. Anybody truly interested in helping their community, working in their community with the population, with whatever government they have: this has to be done. Your community will thrive and grow and develop and all that has to be protected.

Lily: What brought you to this field of practice? Could you share some of your professional journey with us?

David: I have a pretty varied career. At one point I was an iron worker, working on buildings in the New York City area, where I witnessed the bombing of the Twin Towers. And at that point there was a break in the works that were happening in the area where I was, so I took that opportunity to follow up on some residential construction carpentry that I was doing in my home community, and where eventually I was contacted about taking some Occupational Health and Safety training. After I completed this training,  I was using it in my residential construction career.

Then I was asked to be the Occupational Health and Safety Officer on a small office complex, and when that was finished I was asked to apply for the Safety Inspector position on the bridge that goes through my community. So I did that for 3 years. I was the community band council’s Safety Inspector. And towards the end of that contract a position came up in another community doing the same thing, and at the same time an emergency management position became available with the Assembly of First Nations, so I applied for both of them. I won both of them, but I had never worked in emergency management, and emergency management actually falls under the umbrella of Occupational Health and Safety, so I really had an eye on developing my Occupational Health and Safety background by taking the emergency management position at AFN. So I did that and I worked with them for 2 years.

With the political climate of the time, the funding was cut for my position, so I was offered an interchange agreement at INAC so I moved over there and started working in the Emergency Management Assistance Program. While I was at AFN I looked into getting a degree in emergency management. So, to backtrack a bit, when I started at AFN, I went to Algonquin and got an honors certificate in Occupational Health and Safety and a component of that was emergency management. I didn’t want to waste any time, so I applied to Cape Breton University and got accepted into their emergency management program. Two years later I graduated with a Bachelors of Technology in Emergency Management.

Lily: That’s why I feel it’s important to tell your story so others feel like they can do it. From an ironworker in New York, to shaping policy on Indigenous Disaster Resilience in Canada.

Final question: How does your Kanienkehaka culture inform your approach to your profession?

David: There’s a kind of theory that I’m developing, it is Adaptation=Resilience=Sustainability. So if you look back in the history at First Nations, any Indigenous culture, wherever they lived, they had to adapt to their environment. They learned how to live in their environment, they learned how to survive. All these survival skills were their resiliency, so knowing all this stuff they were able to face all the challenges within their environment, whether it was looking for food, looking for water, looking for new places to live, things of that nature, learning the trees, the medicines and how to use them and so on. So basically they adapted to their environment so everything they learned became their resilience. So the more resilient you are the more you can ensure that your culture or your community or your people will survive. And that’s their sustainability. In my mind, that theory fits every indigenous culture, but for me it’s not something everybody talks about, although everybody should be talking about it, and looking at it from that regard. For my culture, it’s the same thing, you have to look at your environment, learn how to live in it and make sure everybody has the same information to ensure your resilience, and therefore you’re able to sustain everybody. It is basically a whole of community approach. It needs a little bit more development but that’s the basic idea to it. It’s a sound theory, the more I work with this theory the more I’m able to develop it.

Having said that, I’ll say I don’t hoard knowledge, I share it. So if anyone needs my help, I’ll gladly help.