Natural disasters such as floods, forest fires and tornadoes can hit remote Indigenous communities every year, compounding the impact over time. With a generous contribution from The Sprott Foundation, the Red Cross is working with these communities to enhance their capacity in responding to disasters, including risks related to health and safety.
Originally focused on Manitoba and Saskatchewan – and with the long-term goal of extending the approach to support disaster risk reduction efforts across the country – the philanthropy-driven initiative relies on each community identifying the risks it considers most important.
“For many, natural disasters are the main threat, but some communities may identify risks like mental health issues,” says Shawn Feely, the Canadian Red Cross vice president for Manitoba and Nunavut.
“Many Indigenous communities are in places that put them at greater risk than many other communities,” he adds. “They are often in lower-lying areas, closer to the oceans, in or near forests and on the open prairies. Disasters often force families to separate as they evacuate their homes, a situation that undermines the communities’ sense of security and stability.”
While the Canadian Red Cross has been working with Indigenous communities in Manitoba for many years with the support of the federal government and other partners, a transformational gift by The Sprott Foundation in 2016 enabled the humanitarian organization to develop new ways, alongside Indigenous communities, to address risks including a decline in volunteer numbers.
“The very generous gift from The Sprott Foundation allowed us to build a unique program that strengthens these communities from within,” says Mr. Feely.
“First Nations communities already have a lot of strength and knowledge on how to deal with disasters. The Canadian Red Cross is collaborating with communities to build on those strengths and enhance their capacity to address the risks.”
Identifying preparedness activities depends on the community’s needs and often includes first-aid training, emergency social services training, and search-and-rescue with wilderness first-aid training.
“We heard from many communities that they wanted to increase their first-aid training at the basic level for their general community members, and at a more advanced level for their responders who in turn can also help support the local health system,” says Mr. Feely.
Working with the community, the Canadian Red Cross develops a disaster plan and tests it in a tabletop exercise.
“There’s trust that we will support the leadership of the community when they need to evacuate to a host community. The leadership of the community is in charge [during a disaster response], and we support them by providing emergency social services and other assistance,” he says.
The project has proved successful on several levels, including paving the way for more meaningful engagement in the future. In Saskatchewan, a collaboration agreement was signed with the Prince Albert Grand Council (covering 22 First Nations in northern Saskatchewan), and in Manitoba, the Canadian Red Cross expanded its work in more than 40 Indigenous communities, building skills and resources to address a range of disaster risks.
The project has enabled the Canadian Red Cross to develop and test a national Community Engagement Strategy, which is transforming the way it works with Indigenous communities, says Mr. Feely.
Reflecting on the project, he feels grateful for the generosity and vision of the Sprott family and what the gift through their foundation has made possible.
“As an organization, we’re gaining so much from working with Indigenous communities – the partnerships we have gained, and the trust we have built. We learn from each other and come from a place of respect to move the needle on issues that are important.”
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