Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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A call to action

Exploring equality, diversity and inclusion as it applies to the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

June 29, 2020
By Thomas Keaney

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So much is at stake when an alert is sounded: lives, property and communities are all vulnerable when facing crisis. Across the Canadian landscape every day, men and women prepare and commit to protecting friends, families and strangers that they are dedicated to serve. Being part of the fire service is a proud vocation to have.

Presently, fire service organizations face a great call to action with regards to the pressing need to evolve our emergency service model to address Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). One of the most complex to address is that of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concerning Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, any issues that undermine cultures or devalue sectors of our communities should require us to try and create initiatives to improve our roles.

But what do we do with hurt? We have all felt the enormity of loss at some point in our lives. The gravity of the injustice for generations of Indigenous peoples has had a profound impact on the Canadian consciousness. In 2009, former governor general Michaëlle Jean asked Canadians to “embrace the luminous promise of the truth rather than push this chapter [of Canadian history] from our minds because if the present doesn’t recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes it’s revenge.”

Particularly, when it comes to the division of both sides due to settler colonialism, it means recognition of wrong doing, understanding of our own paths to reconciliation and ultimately, the ability to respond to the 94 calls to action in the TRC. We each have a role to play, precisely what that role will be is uniquely individual and this brief is intended to be a representation of a settler firefighter perspective with a desire to engage emergency service providers.

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The focus of this article is threefold. First, engage partners in developing an understanding of the TRC’s desired outcomes. Secondly, increase firefighters’ awareness and education regarding the colonial history and settler presence within Indigenous culture. And, thirdly, to establish a framework to put into action the recommended calls to action and participate in a meaningful dialogue that addresses the aspirations of our Indigenous community members.

The TRC defines reconciliation as “coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward.” As public servants, we have a duty to embrace our responsibilities in the pursuit of reconciliation. We rely on strategies and tactics to guide our actions in times of crisis and should approach this in the same way. Fire does not discriminate.

In section 57, outlining professional development and training for public servants, the TRC states: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to provide education to public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations.” This will require skills- based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.

The mandate is universal. Enormous strides are needed by all to ensure we curate equality, inclusion and diversity where we live and play. As settler firefighters who have a shared desire to serve our community, we must be engaging partners who seek to understand the desire of all those we have promised to protect. To be clear, the TRC’s 94 calls to action are not intended to give Indigenous peoples an advantage over non-Indigenous peoples. In fact, the intent is to give them the same opportunities as non-Indigenous Canadians. For many non-Indigenous stakeholders, the learning curve is steep but I encourage everyone to embrace the differences and harness the shared desire to find healing and grow our communities through understanding and cooperation.

Much of the work of firefighters is unchanged which is good in many ways because change is often challenging. At times its uncomfortable. Sometimes, downright painful. When change agents ask us to be ‘open’ and ‘accepting’ to difficult concepts or ideologies, they are really saying, ‘trust me, the perils of the journey are worth the possible plights.” We encounter much steadfast skepticism and downright opposition to ‘change’ in the fire service. The Indigenous community are hopeful these champions of change will be moved to act, in big or small was, just so long as it’s genuine. By embracing the ‘suck’ feeling of being uncomfortable with change, we become open to the evolution of our fire service. We have a lot to be proud of; traditions of valour and service, benevolence, purpose and value to our communities. The desire to increase firefighters’ awareness and education is an admirable initiative. The ability to better represent, empathize, and gain understanding of Indigenous members of the communities we serve is imperative. As settler firefighters, we must understand how the care and service we provide may be insensitive to our Indigenous community and the lands we protect has a rich importance to the Indigenous people, who are intrinsically linked to it.

Without accepting the 94 calls to action, firefighters and their respective departments may unintentionally contribute to an environment where interactions with the Indigenous community members may leave them feeling devalued. In an effort to address unconscious bias, we must acknowledge the TRC’s 94 calls to action and, through underdranding, make strides to address it. It is important to remember Indigenous beliefs about healing and wellness are both relevant and legitimate. Being mindful of the traditions and values of the Indigenous citizens we serve will go a long way to creating a desired cooperation and will certainly benefit all in times of crisis or emergency.

The recommendation for firefighters and their departments is to be proactive in gaining understanding of the desires of the Indigenous community and to partner in recognizing lands and work to address the TRC’s calls to action. Perhaps the best strategy is to assess our understanding of Indigenous culture, the significance of lands we serve, and ask what, if anything, are we doing that may be insensitive or make Indigenous community members feel marginalized.

Create a short assessment of your understanding of Indigenous communities. Start by identifying what peoples are connected to your community. What significant landmarks, events or settlements are part of your community’s Indigenous history? Honour and acknowledge these legacies. Engage the Indigenous community by recognizing that many no longer inhabit their native soil due to long standing colonialization. Consider another obstacle facing many First Nations: 82 per cent of on-reserve First Nations adults and 76 per cent of First Nations youth perceived alcohol and drug abuse to be the main challenge currently facing their community.

It is vital to recognize that while dedications and recognitions of Indigenous lands is a good thing, it is also a solemn acknowledgement and requires respectful attendance. When in doubt, connect with your Indigenous community members and they will lead you through the experience. Be a mindful witness and respectful participant. This will go a long way to advance the initiatives needed for reconciliation that “overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people.”

My path to reconciliation has been influenced by living in a community with an undeniable Indigenous culture and history, a rare remaining Residential school (which is now the Woodland Cultural Centre), the Mohawk Institute and a neighbour to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) or “people of the longhouse”. Initially, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca formed the Haudenosanee Confederation, more commonly known as Six Nations, with the Tuscarora joining after. This has a powerful influence over my view of the Indigenous people living the reconciliation reality. I have attended ‘Save the Evidence’ events, met survivors of the Residential schools, heard lectures on the complexity of Indigenous issues and seen the struggles up close. As a member of the Burlington fire department in Ontario, I am aware of the legacy of the Indigenous inhabitants of yesterday and today. Through it all, I have discovered I love the Indigenous people for their art, culture and traditions, but also for their humour and resilience. I respect their passion to right-the-wrongs and their courage to invite others to participate in healing-the-hurt. The commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion need not be repentance for the sins of our forefathers. I don’t believe that is what is being asked, but rather to participate in acknowledging wrongs and rebuilding trust among all peoples. Ultimately, I gain an understanding that affects all the people I am fortunate to serve. I am not an expert on all thing pertaining to equality, diversity and inclusion or TRC but I am an active participant. I have accepted the challenge facing our industry and desire to have a positive influence over it. I encourage you to do the same.

References and Resources


Captain Thomas Keaney of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario is a founding member of the City of Burlington’s Diversity and Inclusivity Team. He has worked to promote the benefits that a supportive, diverse and inclusive environment can bring within the fire service and the community. Keaney has been active as a department lead for MTO Driver Training, Pump Operations and EMR, as well as creating a departmental awareness program for the introduction of Mid-Rise All Wood and Mass Timber construction within his community throughout his 18 years. Outside of his role with the BFD, he is a member of the NFPA Standard Review Committee 1410 and 13E, Special Olympics and Camp Oochigeas and supporter of the FSWO. Keaney can be reached at thomas.keaney@burlington.ca.


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