Sharing Lessons Learned About Disaster Resilience for First Nations Communities: A Summary Report

Connecting resilience to Traditional Knowledge at the CRHNet Symposium.

By Liane Benoit, Brenda Murphy and Laurie Pearce
Corresponding Author:
Funding provided by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

The mission of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network (CRHNet) is to create a safer and more resilient nation by identifying risk and hazards and to improve emergency and disaster management. The goal of this project was to develop a summary report for First Nation communities highlighting the lessons learned from two events held in Montreal, Quebec, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On November 20-22, 2016, Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction hosted their 7th Annual National Roundtable on Disaster Risk Reduction, entitled “Understanding Disaster Risks,” which is the first priority within the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). On November 23-25, 2016, CRHNet held its 13th Annual Symposium. The theme for this year was “Inspiring Resilience” and one of the key Symposium tracks was “Disaster Resilience in Indigenous Communities.” Drawing from these two events, this report provides an overview of key insights about disaster resilience.

L – R: Carole Mcgregor, Mohawk Elder Assistant; Judith Thusky, Algonquin Elder Assistant; Celine Thusky, Algonquin Elder from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec; Amelia Mcgregor, Mohawk Elder from Kahnawake, Quebec (Photo credit David Diabo)

Presenters provided several definitions of resilience at the Roundtable and the Symposium. Many connected resilience to Traditional Knowledge (TK) and the ability to handle change. Resilience was defined as the ability to survive and persist within a variable environment. There was strong endorsement for holistic and strategic approaches to resilience and that all sectors of society, including residents, governments and the private sector need to know how to self-organize to achieve DRR.

The pride of Indigenous communities and their resilience and capacity to respond appropriately to impending threats or disasters was a recurrent theme that was distilled into four distinct sub-themes: Indigenous Resilience and Self-Sufficiency, TK in DRR, the Value of Collaboration and Voice of Indigenous Youth. The robust approaches of the Salish people to ongoing threats and the spontaneous and organized Ahousaht response to the sinking of the Leviathan ll are both emblematic examples. The active collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies, the increasingly active involvement of youth in DRR work and the contribution of TK to resilience, DRR and EM are all growing areas of strength. Together, these illustrate the desire and intent of Indigenous peoples to become full partners and leaders in protecting their communities and their members from the threat of natural and human-caused disasters.

While the inherent resilience of Indigenous communities is very real, there remain challenges, many not exclusive to Indigenous populations, that are worthy of note. These included family violence following disaster, the historic trauma related to residential school experiences and the “sixties scoop” and the impacts of climate change. Challenges associated with evacuations include the re-traumatization of evacuees, the lack of country foods and evacuation protocols that don’t keep families together. Operational difficulties associated with staff turnovers and the integration of Indigenous communities into the larger regional or national emergency response structure were also identified.

Several examples of social and technological innovation in DRR and resilience were presented. In terms of conceptual innovation, DRR, emergency management (EM) and resilience can be imagined as ecosystems that need to be flexible to survive. The rigidness common in many organizations contributes to fragility. It is important to understand risk events as disruptions in the continuum of processes that unfold across space and time rather than as distinct, stand-alone events.
Planning and education innovation examples were provided including websites (the Aboriginal Disaster Resilience Planning Process), new emergency training and response programs focused on schools (Save the Children), and the revitalization of Indigenous knowledge networks (Coast Salish Tribal Heritage Institute). Technological innovation included dendrochronology work related to climate change mitigation and adaptation and a mobile phone application to provide crowd-sourced, real-time information about ice floe conditions.

In terms of future opportunities in Indigenous DRR and resilience, the engagement of Public Safety and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada towards the implementation of the Sendai framework, and the subsequent establishment of the four working groups under the Canadian Platform, including the Indigenous Resilience Working Group, has significantly raised the profile of Indigenous issues. Ensuring the health and safety of First Nation communities during disasters was advocated through culturally appropriate responses, active leadership involvement and broader recognition of First Nations capacities and experiences. The use of experiential pedagogical approaches such as applied theatre was said to align DRR concepts with oral history, storytelling, legends, dance, games and music. A proposed solution to the challenges posed by evacuations due to recurrent flooding, was addressed through the design of amphibious housing for Indigenous communities that would allow these communities to shelter-in-place. The use of technology to promote greater connectivity between DRR and EM specialists working remotely throughout the Arctic was highlighted as a way of enhancing the resilience and response capacity of the many isolated Arctic communities throughout the far North of Canada and the United States (ARMNet).

Final insights drawn from the DRR Roundtable and CHRNet Symposium are as follows:

  • The innate resilience and capacities in Indigenous communities serve as an important foundation for all DRR and EM initiatives. Despite these strengths, ongoing challenges remain to be addressed including the colonial legacy, residential school historical trauma, the continued impacts from evacuations such as family violence and climate change.
  • In developing culturally appropriate DRR and EM initiatives with Indigenous communities, designing programs that honour local ways of knowing tend to be more successful.
  • When Indigenous DRR and EM Indigenous initiatives can be integrated into broader frameworks and mandates, relationships flourish and disaster resilience increases for everyone – Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
  • Several promising opportunities suggest that if the proper financial and structural supports are in place and initiatives incorporate appropriate Indigenous ways of knowing, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities can continue to build on their innate resilience and address ongoing challenges.

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