A year before First Nations experienced their worst wildfire season, Ottawa’s auditor general was calling on the federal government to do more to support emergency management for Indigenous communities.
An audit, released by the auditor general in 2022, criticized Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) for “not adequately” supporting First Nations, by spending 3.5 times more on emergency response than on preparation and mitigation.
Similar concerns had been brought to the government’s attention in the past decade. The 2022 report noted the department had failed to address problems with emergency preparedness and mitigation identified in a 2013 auditor general report.
The department had not clearly identified all First Nations communities at risk and was swamped by a backlog of climate-mitigation projects, the report stated. Earlier recommendations that First Nations receive help in advancing mitigation projects and funding more dedicated emergency management co-ordinator positions had also not been met.
Department officials acknowledged these shortcomings following audits in 2013, 2017 and 2022, all of which criticized Indigenous Services Canada for spending more on reacting to emergencies than preparing for them. It’s a costly mistake, the most recent audit said, as every $1 invested in preparedness and mitigation can save $6 in emergency response and recovery costs.
While some progress has been made over the past decade, the advances were too slight to be of much assistance this summer when the worst wildfire season in Canadian history kicked off in May.
On most days, Andrea Stelter, emergency program co-ordinator for the Nation of Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw in the B.C. Interior, can be found in her trademark sweater and jeans, carrying an aluminum travel mug. She might stop and chat with band staff on her way to get coffee.
It’s a position with many meetings and paperwork, seeming slow and unimportant, until it isn’t.
Or, she might be found at her desk, working through a task list of paperwork, meeting grant deadlines. Her job is to ensure they have a robust and cool-headed response to Skwlāx’s emergencies.
In August, during heavy winds, the devastating Bush Creek Fire roared its way for 21 kilometres into the valley where Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw sits. It destroyed 64 structures, including 34 community homes.
The community was prepared for the evacuation as Stelter and band members had several plans in place.
For two years before the Bush Creek wildfire, Stelter and Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw‘s fire department chased funding to prepare for emergency responses. Through that work, Skwlāx procured miles of pumps and hoses and two fire trucks for the Skwlāx Fire Department, a bush truck, and 15 emergency operation co-ordinator kits that include laptops and IT equipment, Stelter said.
Stelter helped organize training for all the equipment. It gave Skwlāx expertise in rapid damage assessment to determine the safety of a building after a disaster. Another program allowed band members to receive their wildfire-fighting tickets, a regulatory requirement to work on active wildfires in the province. Workers at the gravel pit, for example, were pulled into wildfire fighting in a support role.
A wildfire sprinkler system was also funded and installed on key buildings in the First Nation, like the band office.
“That wasn’t just handed to us, we had to go out and get that funding,” Stelter told Canada’s National Observer.
A few days before the fire, a top priority was to make sure Talking Rock, the community’s golf course and one of Skwlāx’s economic engines, was not destroyed. Stelter worked with the golf course’s superintendent to protect the course’s equipment. Before the fire came through, the equipment was placed in the middle of the seventh green, away from any trees, before they turned the sprinklers on.
Band staff was told to take all the laptops and its server when they evacuated, ensuring the nation’s essential functions could continue offsite.
The cultural heritage department also had an essential job: protecting the community’s invaluable artifacts, like petroglyphs that are thousands of years old.
The band filled shipping containers with the artifacts, covered the vents with duct tape and prayed they would be safe. The artifacts in the shipping containers survived the fire without even smoke damage and the containers were moved to a new location after the fire. The band office and vegetation around it also survived, thanks to the wildfire sprinkling system.
Protecting the work of the cultural department and other band operations is what Stelter calls the “cultural responsibility” of the emergency management co-ordinator position.
The gas station, and the restaurant and office space attached to it, wasn’t as lucky. All that remained was ash, debris and its steel skeleton.
In 2023, more than 95 Indigenous communities were evacuated, more than the four previous fire seasons combined, according to data collected from ISC.
Extreme weather events due to climate change, coupled with aging infrastructure, have led to more frequent and longer evacuations of First Nation communities, the auditor general report said.
James Moxon, associate regional director general of Indigenous Services Canada, told Canada’s National Observer the department agrees with the audit’s recommendations that more needs to be done to prepare and mitigate emergency situations like wildfires.
But progress so far has been slow.
Currently, only six jurisdictions in Canada have bilateral wildfire agreements: B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. These agreements determine how the federal and provincial governments will act together to respond to wildfire emergencies, an important prerequisite to ironing out jurisdictional wrinkles that may arise.
However, these bilateral agreements don’t include First Nations at the table. They remain outsiders, looking in.
And wildfire multilateral agreements, which would include First Nations as equal partners with the feds and provinces, are not currently in place, the auditor general said.
Multilateral wildfire agreements would ensure First Nations have a voice in frequent wildfire emergencies affecting them. Without this agreement, First Nations are at higher risk of not receiving emergency services when needed, the auditor general wrote.
For example, an agreement can delineate essential services required after an evacuation, such as improving access to culturally appropriate services, mental health supports and other health-care services. Problems in these areas have not been addressed by Indigenous Services Canada, the audit found.
Indigenous Services told Canada’s National Observer it is now updating how risk is measured using a more collaborative approach with Indigenous communities.
The department is committed to putting those agreements in place and is working with First Nations to respond to their emergency needs in the meantime, Moxon added.
Indigenous Services Canada is also considering additional emergency management co-ordinator positions in high-risk communities, Moxon said.
Indigenous Services currently funds 196 full- or part-time emergency management co-ordinators, about three times fewer than the 630 recognized First Nations in Canada.
“When I took on this position two years ago, I wanted to demonstrate the difference in recovery in response that you have when you have somebody dedicated to this position,” Stelter said.
Stelter’s salaried position has allowed her to develop partnerships with governments and other emergency service providers like regional districts and B.C. Hydro, which had to replace 500 electrical poles to return electricity to the community following the Bush Creek wildfire.
It’s an enviable position for most First Nations. Without a dedicated emergency management co-ordinator, First Nation administrative staff would be working on those grants and partnerships “on the side of somebody’s desk,” she said.
“And often those [First Nations] are 20 steps behind during response and recovery,” she said.
Indigenous Services is also developing a new risk assessment process (another shortfall identified by the auditor general) that will determine which vulnerable First Nations have been left behind. The risk assessment will be co-developed with First Nations in what Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu calls “implementing the tools of self-determination.”
It’s unclear how long the new multilateral agreements will take given the differing needs and timelines of First Nations, Moxon added. “Multilateral agreements will be achieved, based on the dialogue and discussion, in agreement with First Nations partners, so we need to work at the pace of First Nations.”
The new risk assessment approach to emergency management is expected in spring 2024, Indigenous Services Canada told Canada’s National Observer in an email statement.
“The department’s updated risk-based approach will also be utilized to determine future allocations, including emergency management co-ordinators,” the statement continued.
Meanwhile, two months after the Bush Creek wildfire, Stelter credits Indigenous Services for having “been at the table from Day 1” with Skwlāx.
Either the Skwlāx were lucky or things are starting to improve. It wasn’t always like that, Stelter noted, thanking many First Nations who were impacted by previous fires coming forward and telling Indigenous Services that “this is not working for us.”
“I have seen significant change in [Indigenous Services Canada],” she added.
In the age of unpredictable climate emergencies, the costs have never been more significant. This wildfire season alone, over $148 million was spent to help Indigenous communities respond and recover from fires.
That’s close to the amount spent on preparedness and mitigation over the previous four years (2018-22) when Indigenous Services Canada spent $182 million to help communities prepare and mitigate for all emergencies, not just wildfires.
It’s unclear how much Indigenous Services Canada will spend on climate prevention and mitigation, given the Liberal government’s finance department in August signalled a three per cent budget cut for all departments — about $15 billion across the federal government.
It’s still to be seen how the government will respond to this year’s wildfire season in its fall economic statement on Nov. 21.
“There’s a lot of work to do to pivot from response to prevention,” Hajdu said.
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer
Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer