Enabling Indigenous emergency management: An interview with Tahawennon:tie David A. Diabo

By Lilia Yumagulova

Tahawennon:tie David Diabo is a Kanien’kehá:ka from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake. “As a little boy, he was very active and always on the move, like a tumbleweed, “ David’s older sister Kwaronhiawi Diabo shared.

David began his diverse career at 11 years old as a construction carpenter apprenticing for his father and working on homes in Kahnawake. Later, he became an ironworker, which took him as far away from home as Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, and as close as the New York City area of the United States. Ironworking is a tough, unforgiving profession that demands a combination of strength, intelligence, and calculated risk management. It was while working in this area that he witnessed the bombing of the Twin Towers. On returning home from that event, he took on an opportunity in Occupational Health and Safety training.  From there his career advanced from Occupational Health and Safety Officer and Inspector in his hometown to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake’s Safety Inspector, working on the Mercier bridge (one of five bridges connecting to the island of Montreal and the only one designated for hazardous materials), which goes through his community to the island of Montreal. When an emergency management position became available with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), David was keen to try his skills in a new field, and has been there since 2010.

It is inspiring that given these beginnings, David has come to be one of the most impactful and influential figures in the field of Indigenous emergency management in Canada. As a lifetime learner and educator, David holds a Certificate of Completion in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) OutReach Program at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an Honours Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) from Algonquin College in Ottawa, as well as many designations in the field. He completed a Bachelor of Technology in Emergency Management at Cape Breton University, and was also awarded a Graduate Diploma from Carleton University in Indigenous Policy and Administration. He is currently enrolled in the Master of Public Safety program at Wilfrid Laurier University and swears this will be his last go at higher education.

As the longest serving Indigenous Board Member of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network, David has created and led the Indigenous stream as part of the annual symposium, a nationally significant platform that brings together Indigenous communities, researchers, and practitioners in emergency management. This stream addresses the four pillars of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. David is passionate about and has contributed significantly to the mitigation field as a Special Adviser-Emergency Services at AFN and completed a three-year work exchange as the Non-structural Mitigation and Emergency Preparedness Program Manager at [then] Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Tahawennon:tie, David’s traditional name means “his words are flying” or “bringing the message.” Throughout his exceptional career, outstanding service, and incredible achievement, David’s message has been very clear: “We can, and must, do better in the field of Indigenous emergency management.”

Given the theme of this issue, we connected with David to learn more about the future of Indigenous emergency management from his perspective.

Lily: Please tell us about some of your recent projects, such as the Inventory of Emergency Management Capabilities in Indigenous Communities? How did this project come about?

David: In 2016, there was a meeting of the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management in St. John’s, Newfoundland. At that time, Ralph Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety Canada (PSC), noted that he wanted the contribution of Indigenous people added to the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada, given that it is national in scope. He called for what became known as the Inventory of Emergency Management Capabilities in Indigenous Communities. It became a cooperative and collaborative partnership developed between Public Safety Canada and the AFN.  At AFN, I developed a prototype questionnaire with 50 questions and brought it to PSC where they reviewed and revised the questionnaire and expanded it to 81 questions. We decided through AFN’s suggestion that we should pilot the questionnaire to confirm we were on track with the questions and moving in the right direction based on the feedback we received from the First Nations we visited. The pilot project was tested in the four First Nations closest to Ottawa: Pikwakanagan, Kitigan Zibi, Akwesasne, and Kahnawake. We found it was well received. The communities, wanting to be part of this project, jumped on board, and offered many helpful contributions to the questions and the language, and assisted with revisions to the questions. Later, we found that word had spread on the project and other communities also wanted to be part of it.

In the completion of the pilot phase, we ended up visiting sixty-two communities. We travelled all over the country meeting with First Nations, Tribal Councils, First Nations political offices, and technical organizations. We were included on the agenda of several emergency management workshops where we presented on the Inventory project; there was a realization then that this was a very timely questionnaire in that while many emergency management partners wanted to help First Nations, very few knew how to approach it. This questionnaire exposed and examined many of the gaps in emergency management for First Nations, as well as for their allies and for their stakeholders in areas such as planning, relationships, infrastructure, components of a plan and a program, and the readiness of the First Nation itself, including the roles of the Chief and Councillors. The questionnaire also examined the emergency management coordinators’ positions and what their responsibilities are and should be. It looked at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels of government and how and why they are involved, as well as their roles and responsibilities.

Ultimately, I think the project itself was very worthwhile for First Nations: not only did they get to contribute to a national initiative but also ensured First Nations made a contribution to the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada as was originally requested. Further, First Nations specifically also learned about their own emergency management regimes through participation in this project. The questionnaire served to illuminate where the policy, process, and program deficiencies are; where the gaps in training are; where First Nations have shortages in personnel, equipment, and funding as the foundation for their emergency management regimes. This information and data has helped PSC and other emergency management partners see where they can do better in serving First Nations and to help them focus their funding proposals. In the end, the communities realized where this project could benefit them.

Lily: What are some of the key findings?

David: We’ve found that—and this is something I’ve been saying all along—First Nations need to have care and control of emergency management regimes that are community reflective and culturally appropriate, and not have them prescribed. In some instances, the First Nations have told us that they don’t mind working with the federal government and the provinces, but they don’t want those entities to take over their regimes and develop it for them, and they especially don’t want provincial entities coming in and taking over their response activities and pushing them to the side.

We’d been hearing that we need to include youth, and the Elders, and that as the Sendai Framework points out, we must acknowledge and include Indigenous Knowledge where it plays into and informs emergency management on different levels. Surprisingly, some of the First Nations had already started to work these groups into their emergency management processes.

Lily: As one of the key leaders in Canada who was foundational to the field of Indigenous Emergency Management through the various streams of work that you have done, what do you see as the main barriers that are still remaining?

David: The main barrier to the field of Indigenous Emergency Management, specifically for First Nations, is chronic underfunding. Any attempts on behalf of First Nations in the development of their own community-driven and culturally-appropriate emergency management regimes have been thwarted by unreasonable denials in funding, regardless of the fact that the funding is there for the exclusive use of First Nations, and the loathsome and continuous lack of respect and recognition for First Nations.

In the previous term, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implemented legislation dissolving Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and formally establishing the mandates of two new departments: Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNAC).  It was noted that “one fundamental measure of success will be that appropriate programs and services are increasingly delivered, not by the Government of Canada but instead by Indigenous peoples as they move to self-government.”

Section 6(2) of the Department of Indigenous Services Act sets out the legislated mandate for this department to begin the process of devolution of responsibilities to First Nations in all areas of care and control of ten different functional areas, including emergency management. This, then, would necessarily include the provision of adequate and appropriate funding mechanisms.

The time is now to begin this transfer of responsibilities to First Nations: with First Nations recognized and labelled as wards of a federal jurisdiction by provincial governments, the required relationships don’t exist in most cases, nor do provincial entities make it very easy for First Nations to access and acquire needed funding, programs, and services.

The federal government wants First Nations to rely on provincial governments, municipalities, regional emergency management organizations, and other entities such as the Canadian Red Cross. First Nations simply want to develop their own entities, as they know what would work for them. There are some instances where First Nations, wanting assistance and having called in emergency service assistance, ended up being pushed aside with control taken away from them, then threatened with no service at all if they continued to assert themselves into the operation.

Cooperative and collaborative relationships are the foundation of emergency management and First Nations are no longer looking for a handout, they are looking for a hand up as equal and accepted partners .

We can all accept that in our contemporary lives we do not live in longhouses or teepees anymore; in other words, we’ve adapted to our lived modern realities the way our ancestors did and have created our resilience through learning to live in these new realities where we can now sustain ourselves and our lives with safety and security for our families and possessions. This is the basis of my theory for First Nations, especially in emergency management, where Adaptation = Resilience = Sustainability.

Lily: What makes you hopeful and inspires you as an Indigenous practitioner in this field?

David: That’s a good question. Initially, when I first started, there was no interest from First Nations to develop emergency management regimes. What we are seeing now, and it is inevitably due to climate change making things dangerous (for example, more severe and frequent extreme weather events), is First Nations are actively getting involved in their own emergency management regimes. They want to drive them themselves. They want to see emergency management developed for First Nations.

It is inspiring to see First Nations be included in this field finally and not only take hold of their own processes but be recognized for their efforts.

As per the Minister’s mandates, Indigenous representation is now being called for in a Nation-to-Nation relationship for the development of various initiatives. AFN, as an organization, opens the door for First Nations to be involved in the process. Basically, we try to ensure our advocacy ensures a seat at the table and their voice in the discussion.

Lily: Given your path breaking emergency management career, what is your advice to the next generation?

David: We are seeing a lot of youth getting involved now. For example, “Preparing Our Home” with First Nation youth is a global award-winning project which is still talked about to this day. This is an excellent way to bring awareness and education to youth. My advice to younger people is to get involved. Our communities belong to the youth too, and they have a say in what happens in it and how to protect it, even if it’s in a voluntary role.

Youth are starting to take notice and starting to be involved, and that is what they should do – not just for emergency management but all areas of the community. Get involved. You have a voice.

AFN has a youth council that is included in our informational notifications and our Chiefs Committees meetings; their representation is always asked for, expected, and welcomed. I often hear youth described as not having enough life experience to adequately contribute, but I think it is a mistake to label them so.

Everyone starts out with little or no experience, no one is born knowing, and it’s through inclusion that we gain experience and understanding, which evolves into knowledge and wisdom. No one should rob them of this opportunity.

Lily: In your opinion, across the four phases of emergency management, which phase needs the most investment at this point?

David:  Response has always gotten the bigger part of emergency management budgets, but disaster risk reduction, if done properly, says we must prevent and mitigate emergencies. To implement mitigation strategies, we have to have the policies, processes, procedures, and funding to be effectively prepared. If we’ve done a proper assessment of our hazardscape, we’ll know what to try to prevent, try to mitigate, and try to prepare for. We now also have to contend with climate change and its effects on our weather and environment.  We have to review and revise our prevention, mitigation, and preparation processes, but more importantly, our response methodologies. We have known for decades now about the kind of effects to expect that are now happening, and that are going to continue to happen. Arming ourselves with this information and data, we can now push our thinking, our funding, our equipment, our personnel to develop appropriate mitigation strategies against the effects of climate change for First Nations in all areas. I think that that is the one area that needs more attention.

Lily: Can you leave us with a personal example from your community on how Traditional Knowledge informs not just emergency management but community resilience in general?

David:  In my own community, it’s the inclusion of the Elders in all aspects of community life. We are one of the few communities in Canada that are considered to be in an advanced position. There is a high number of very educated people from our community that are considered leaders and trailblazers in their fields; however, we now know we cannot rely solely on having a good education to form the fabric of the community. We now know we must also come around back to where we are from and acknowledge the fact that culture and language form the greater part of our identity, and that we can’t learn this from a book, or a university classroom. Now we acknowledge our Elders, we ask for their opinions to share their knowledge.

This is important to all First Nations, as we have oral traditions to pass down knowledge; the only way for this to happen is to include the Elders. If it involves learning the language or a cultural ceremony, or even if it’s just talking groups to get to know the Elders, then this is what we must do: get to know them, understand them, learn why what they’re saying is important, and finally to understand what they offer. This contributes to identity which translates into a sense of community, and this is where resilience starts.

Adaptation = Resilience = Sustainability.