Canada’s First Nations fire departments throughout the entire country are severely underfunded, and it is beginning to take its toll. With a recent uptick in suspected arsons, an understaffed and inexperienced volunteer staff, and equipment that is not up to snuff, the problem only looks to get worse in the future. Officials are now calling for an increase in funding before a catastrophe hits.
First Nations in Canada are a designated group of Aboriginal people. Once known colloquially as “Indians,” The First Nations are made up of around 630 different bands of people spread across Canada. One of the largest of these First Nations, the Six Nations of the Grand River, is located in Ontario, and they have become the poster children of the chronically understaffed and underfunded fire departments that serve these communities.
According to the National Post, the Six Nations Fire Department has been particularly hard-hit this year, and it’s beginning to show worrying cracks in their ability to serve the community. Matthew Miller, the Six Nations Fire Department Fire Chief, told reporters that despite the fact they get about twice the volume of calls that similarly sized municipalities get, they only get around 1/3 of the funding. Making this statistic more worrisome is the fact that people residing in First Nations’ land are 10 times more likely to die in fires.
“As it is right now, we’re barely hanging on by a thread,” Miller told reporters. “Essentially what’s happening is everybody is getting exhausted and pushed to their limits physically and mentally.”
The Six Nations Fire Department not only suffers from inadequate funding, but they also have to deal with constant staff turnover. Each one of their current 21 part-time volunteers also hold down full-time jobs, and most of them have not received adequate training in firefighting.
Miller explained that the department averages 2-3 emergency calls a day, which they can barely handle. He fears if that number grows, the department will be completely unable to handle it and catastrophe could strike at any time.
In the relatively small community of 12,000 residents, the Six Nations Fire Department has already dealt with 10 house fires, a chemical fire at a recycling facility, and nine separate cases of suspected arson. Miller explained that the only way they’ve been able to keep their heads above water to this point is by calling in neighboring departments to help, but he knows that the solution will not last long-term.
Federal funding for First Nation fire departments is $26 million per year, and must be spread across the entire country. This funding is not nearly enough to staff, equip, and train each department. In fact, Miller explained that the funding only covers a small portion of anything they do.
“First Nations receive funding for fire protection only, not what every other fire service in the world does,” he explained. “If you’re in a car accident and you get trapped in your car, we could put the fire out, but we’re not funded to get you out of your car.”
While the First Nations leaders are lobbying for an increase in funding, many are questioning why the Canadian government needs to step up their support rather than the First Nations collecting taxes from their citizens to fund the fire departments. First Nation residents do not currently pay the municipal taxes that Canadian citizens do, which fund their own fire departments.