A judge examining the deaths of three children and a grandfather in house fires on remote northern Manitoba reserves says all First Nations communities should have 911 service.
In her final report released Wednesday, Judge Tracey Lord recommended the emergency dispatch service be established on all reserves. She also recommended better co-ordinated firefighting training for First Nations communities and greater priority of fire safety inspections.
"First Nation community leaders (should) take steps to ensure that proper resources are allocated towards fire protection services," Lord wrote in her report.
Reserves should support education training and retain certified electricians and carpenters to perform fire safety inspections and do repairs, she recommended, despite concerns raised during the inquest that such inspections would result in many homes being condemned.
Some chiefs say the recommendations will do little to address the disproportionate number of fatalities from house fires on reserves.
When fire broke out at two-month-old Errabella Harper's home in St. Theresa Point in January 2011, the community's fire truck was broken, in a garage, with no fire hoses. No one knew where the keys were.
A second fire about two months later in God's Lake Narrows killed Demus James and his two grandchildren.
The inquest found the reserves were woefully unprepared to handle the fires. Neighbours tried to douse the flames with buckets, wet towels and a low-pressure hose.
Statistics from the Office of the Fire Commissioner show that residents of aboriginal communities in Manitoba are far more likely to die in house fires than people living off reserve, who are more likely to escape with injuries. Although fires on reserves make up less than five per cent of all fires in the province, they account for up to half the fatalities.
An internal report from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada estimated in 2011 that it would take a $28-million injection of federal funding to reduce the number of deadly fires on Manitoba reserves. Only a fraction of that amount has been approved.
Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, who represents northern First Nations, said 911 service for all reserves is a good idea, but premature given the state of some poorly funded, volunteer fire departments.
"Who's going to answer the call?" she asked. "We shouldn't have to just rely on volunteer firefighters and volunteer water truck delivery drivers. We should have trained and skilled people in this area. We have a lot of people who are willing to work and willing to be trained."
First Nations are being asked to do "everything with very little resources and funding," said North Wilson, who is with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point said the community would welcome 911 service. But the recommendation is meaningless without funding to staff the service and ensure there are paid, trained people ready to respond, he said.
Volunteers on the reserve are trying to look after their families, he pointed out. That means they might be hunting, fishing or working when an emergency call comes in. Very few of them would be willing to staff an emergency dispatch line overnight without being paid, he said.
The judge's report amounts to "beautiful rhetoric," he added.
"The meaning behind it, I really appreciate it ... but, in reality, how sustainable can it be?"