In a whirlwind visit to Thunder Bay, Ontario Premier Doug Ford met with a handful of wildfire evacuees, First Nations leaders, first responders and members of the emergency operations team co-ordinating evacuations and forest fire suppression efforts in northwestern Ontario.
Ford’s trip Wednesday came two weeks after First Nations leaders urged him to visit the city, a host community for more than 1,000 evacuees and a key spot for the co-ordination of the region’s wildfire response.
At every turn, people told the premier they needed more resources to fight fires, more beds to house the thousands waiting on high alert to flee wildfires threatening their homes at a moment’s notice, and wrap-around services to support people once they arrive at the host community.
Without those wrap-around, culturally sensitive services, one adviser for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation warned Ford, there could be a “disaster within a disaster.”
At a media availability afterwards, Ford said the province “won’t spare a penny” when it comes to providing resources and supporting the people of northwestern Ontario.
‘Ontario’s approach is failing’
But frustration is growing with the province’s handling of the wildfire response.
Pointing to an updated fire map laid out on a hotel conference table, Mathew Hoppe showed Ford the growing wildfires threatening Pikangikum, one of the largest First Nations in Ontario with about 4,000 people living on the fly-in reserve 200 kilometres north of Kenora. Hoppe, CEO of the Independent First Nations Alliance (IFNA), has been co-ordinating Pikangikum’s evacuation.
About one-quarter of Pikangikum’s population has already left the community, and Hoppe says another 800 people deemed to have serious health risks due to the smoke from fires are still waiting to be moved south. If a full evacuation is required, Hoppe said, a total of 3,000 people who are still in the community need to be moved, housed and supported.
A media statement from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization representing 49 First Nations across Treaty 9 in northern Ontario, noted up to 6,000 more people in northwestern Ontario may need to flee their communities this fire season, “leaving the province short up to 1,500 beds.”
While Ford has said the Greater Toronto Area has lots of space to take evacuees if required, NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in his written statement: “Ontario’s approach is failing.”
Calls were renewed once again for the premier to declare a state of emergency, which First Nations leader say would allow for more resources to provide those beds and wrap-around resources. The premier, however, said a state of emergency wouldn’t make much difference.
Watch | NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler’s response to Premier Doug Ford’s visit:
First Nations-led emergency response
During Ford’s tour of Thunder Bay, Fiddler handed him a report that outlined a number of recommendations to guide emergency management for First Nations in the north moving forward.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on even before COVID,” Fiddler said during a news conference. “We had recognized with the growing threats to our communities — whether it’s due to climate change and floods and forest fires— that we need to build our own capacity to manage our own emergencies.
“That’s something we’ve done for a long time. We need to formalize that process and that structure.”
The 80-page report calls for a tripartite agreement to be negotiated between NAN and the provincial and federal governments around emergency management — something recommended in 2018 by the standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs in a report examining fire safety and emergency management in Indigenous communities.
The report also calls on the province to acknowledge the unique circumstances of each First Nation, its relative remoteness, and ability to respond to emergencies and disasters when considering emergency response.
When asked about the report, the premier said he would look through it and would implement “as much as we can.”
Listen to The Current’s segment on wildfires in northwestern Ontario and the calls for the province to declare a state of emergency:
The Current19:36First Nations leaders urge Ont. government to declare state of emergency over wildfires