Speeches won’t save lives

No matter how dire the circumstances, we can usually do something to improve things if we only try.

“Oh, woe is me!” is an excuse I reject from everyone. Nor am I mad about Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” attitude. No matter how dire the circumstances,  we can usually do something to improve things if we only try. Any effort to better a situation surpasses wringing your hands and adopting a pity stance.

Back in February 2015, a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation near my sister’s Saskatchewan home claimed the life of two toddlers who were alone with their grandmother when the fire broke out.

A working fire truck parked in front of a mechanic’s home had been purchased five years earlier but never properly equipped. Its hoses didn’t fit the reserve’s hydrants. The reserve also lacked trained firefighters, or a volunteer crew.

The reserve receives federal funding annually for fire protection, to be spent as the reserve deems fit. It amounted to $40,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year. The chief said the funds had mostly been spent on fire prevention, including renovating homes to make them more fireproof, and buying smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Yet inspection of the ashes found no evidence of a smoke detector.

I established a Google Alert centred on the Makwa reserve but expanded to encompass other reserves should there be any similar incidents farther afield.

The Makwa tragedy ignited a kerfuffle of chest thumping and palaver as officials decried the loss of two innocent young lives and others demanded more be done to guard against similar catastrophes elsewhere.

Lo and behold, March 29, 2016, a midnight house fire on the Pikangikum Ojibway reserve in northwestern Ontario levelled a home killing a family of nine. Again, inspection of the debris failed to turn up any sign the home had had a smoke detector.

Distressing as such a finding always is, earlier the reserve had been supplied with two smoke detectors for each of the reserve’s 507 homes. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada confirmed that shipment had been made to the band. Yet fire inspectors found the smoke detectors still packed sitting in storage.

Why had Pikangikum not installed the smoke detectors?

Six Nations Fire Chief Matthew Miller stationed in Ohsweken, Ontario admitted, “This seems simple. Why don’t we do this? I don’t even know how to explain it. People should understand that simple tasks aren’t simple in the North.”

How difficult can installing a smoke detector be? Surely the reserve wasn’t supplied with detectors that required hydro rather than a battery? Although knowing how government works, that might have happened. And knowing how reserves work, would anyone point out the error to the government and demand battery powered models in exchange?

Miller acknowledges reserves face a number of competing problems such as housing, infrastructure, policing, as well as the lightning inquiry into missing and murdered women. But in a tour of many reserves, Miller found no one was pushing for better fire protection.

May 2 to 4, 2017 in Ottawa, Miller and his colleagues from the Ontario Native Firefighters Society will present an Ontario Region Fire Protection Strategic Plan.

Sadly, December 14, 2016 on Miller’s home reserve of Oneida Nation, a house fire snuffed the lives of a father and his four sons.

A 2011 federal report, obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation, found that residents of reserves were 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than Canadians who live in any other town or city.

If only grand speeches would install smoke detectors.

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