Wildfires, disasters underscore need for mutual aid agreements between Indigenous Nations in Alberta
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative ReporterHeadlines News Wildfires Emergency & disaster management Indigenous Wildland emergency management emergency preparedness firefighters first nations indigenous mutual aid
May 18, 2023, Alberta – In the early morning hours of May 4, residents in 23 homes on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta were roused from their sleep and forced to evacuate because of an encroaching wildfire in the Lac La Biche forest protected area.
The 200-hectare fire began burning May 3, fueled by tall grass and strong winds.
“It was hard to get ahead of it and by the time we realized how big this fire was, we were getting fairly close to residences, so we decided to put out the evacuation order,” said Beaver Lake Fire Chief Shane Bair.
Evacuees spent the night in nearby Lac La Biche, but were able to return home on May 5. No structural damages were sustained.
The fire was fought by Alberta wildfire crews, since it was in a protected area. However, Beaver Lake responded as well and was supported in its effort by fire departments from Lac La Biche and the nearby Kikino Metis Settlement.
“We’re just lucky to have a good relationship with our neighbours,” said Bair.
The support from Lac La Biche is formalized through a mutual aid agreement. Lac La Biche also has mutual aid agreements with neighbouring Kikino and Buffalo Lake Metis settlements and Goodfish Lake and Heart Lake First Nations.
Lac La Biche does not charge for its services, says Bair.
“They’re really good about their response and helping out. And there’s no billing going back and forth with the First Nations and Metis settlements. There’s not a lot of funding there for us to be able to pay those bills anyway, so it really helps us,” he said.
Bair is hoping to see Beaver Lake sign mutual aid agreements with Kikino and Buffalo Lake Metis settlements and Goodfish Lake and Heart Lake First Nations.
But even without that formal piece of paper, he is quick to point out that Kikino firefighters came out to “relieve our guys for a few hours so that we could go home and rest and then come back and go another round with the fire.”
Michael Martineau, emergency management coordinator with the Confederacy of Treaty 6 Nations, says that informal support is not uncommon.
He points to earlier in May when O’Chiese, Sunchild and Paul Nations were all caught up in their own evacuations and firefights, but still helped each other out.
“I don’t believe there’s a mutual aid agreement there. I think (Paul firefighters) just went out because they were asked and they needed help. They had just gone through it. They knew what it was like. So that resilience and that strength is there, and the willingness is there. That’s why I’m trying to capitalize on this now,” said Martineau.
It’s his goal to formalize that support so it’s not dependent on who is fire chief or who is band chief at the time when an emergency hits.
Martineau is in a brand new position in a brand new department where he’s been tasked with sourcing funding and facilitating networking between the 17 nations that form Treaty 6 to get them to work together in addressing disasters.
“We need to stop looking at things as if it’s just response,” he said.
One of those ways may be by having more full-time paid fire chiefs or directors of emergency management (DEMs).
Bair, who credits Beaver Lake’s leadership for seeing the value in having a paid full-time fire chief, is one of only a handful holding that position in Treaty 6.
“There’s a need for paid fire chiefs and for full-time directors of emergency management on the nations. Every year we see an escalation of fires and fire behaviour and disasters,” said Bair. “It can’t be just a volunteer position on the side of somebody’s desk that they just look at every once in a while. It has to be a dedicated person in these positions. It’s too big of job just to be a volunteer position.”
Martineau says the funding isn’t there from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) for full-time positions so the money would have to come from the bands. He suggests a DEM position with Alberta Emergency Management Agency would pull in $100,000 annually, a figure that would be hard for First Nations to match. He ballparks a more realistic cost for First Nations at $60,000 annually.
ISC offers emergency management assistance as a program and not an essential service. While Martineau would like to see that change to an essential service, he admits “it’s above my pay grade.”
The lack of funding for a dedicated response to emergencies is an issue that has been addressed by First Nations in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and to a lesser extent in Manitoba. Nations in all four provinces operate their own First Nations emergency management organizations.
“They’ve all determined no one nation can do it on their own and look after their emergency management. So they’re banding their resources together and Alberta doesn’t seem to be on that path. It’s been one of the projects I’ve been working on,” said Martineau.
Initial discussions among Treaty 6 nations have been supportive of the concept, but the priority with each nation still lies with having the resources to be able to “look after home first,” says Martineau.
He points out that nations are in varying stages in their emergency management. Those with “progressive leadership” understand these emergency situations are becoming more common and understand the importance of taking mitigative measures.
For those nations that have oil and gas development on their traditional lands, many have formed partnerships with industry to build up their resources to prevent and fight disasters.
Other nations have fire departments that are strictly volunteer, including the DEM, “meaning that any of the preparedness work always gets put on the back burner because they have to do their base position,” says Martineau.
Beaver Lake has a volunteer fire department of 15, says Bair, but their advantage comes in that he is fully trained and is a fire service instructor. Bair would like to see mutual aid agreements allow Indigenous firefighters to cross train, share resources and not bill each other.
“I can’t afford to pay those bills and I know the other nations can’t afford to pay those bills either. There’s just not enough funding there to do it. We burn through what little money we have really quick,” he said.
Not billing each other would be ideal, agrees Martineau, but adds that’s not his decision.
Martineau says one Treaty 6 nation is in the process of trying to start a fire school that would be open to all three treaty areas for training.
While Martineau does his work in Treaty 6 to support the sharing of resources between the area’s nations, similar work is being undertaken at the tribal council levels in both Treaty 7 and Treaty 8.
Martineau says he would like to see province-wide coordination and mutual aid agreements between the First Nations and Metis communities. But that push of the federal government to provide the necessary dollars has to come from leadership and 45 chiefs across Alberta saying, “‘Hey, we need money for our own organization.’ That has a lot (of) weight.”
However, says Martineau, the ideal “model for success” is the support that occurred between Beaver Lake, Kikino and Lac La Biche earlier this month – First Nation, Metis, and municipality – working together and “they’re not trying to make a buck off of each other. They’re there just to support each other and we see how successful that is.”
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