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A man rides his ATV in the Northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. The Trudeau Liberals are offering Indigenous communities $30 million in prize money as part of a contest that could end up rewriting the rules about how the federal government funds badly needed housing on-reserve.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did not commit to calls for a legislative framework to ensure there are enforceable fire and building codes on reserve, saying that picking one thing is not going to solve a systemic and Canadawide problem.

While he was campaigning in Hamilton on Friday, Mr. Trudeau was asked if he would commit to addressing what Indigenous leaders and policy experts have clearly identified as a gap that needs closing: the lack of fire standards or enforcement on reserves, which are afforded to all other jurisdictions in Canada. They have also warned that Indigenous people, including children, will die preventable deaths if this is not remedied.

Experts say the central issue is that provincial laws do not apply on reserve because of the federal lndian Act, resulting in a lack of sanctions. The matter has been documented in parliamentary hearings, reports and highlighted by Indigenous experts, including former Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

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Former top public servant Michael Wernick, who resigned from his role as Privy Council clerk in March, 2019, also told The Globe and Mail that more political parties need to take up this issue and there is no reason for it to be partisan. Change would require an act of Parliament, he said, adding that the public-policy premise would be that people who live on reserve should have the same protections as other Canadians in the field of building codes and fire codes.

Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Friday: “Picking one thing that suddenly is going to be the fix is, I guess it makes for good journalism, but it’s not how you solve a systemic nationwide problem that is multilayered.

“Yes, we need to address that issue and we are working on it. But there are many, many issues we have to address at the same time and we have to do them not with an Ottawa knows best or a Globe and Mail knows best perspective. It has to be a perspective that is driven by Indigenous peoples, their priorities to how they keep their kids safe.”

Findings released by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Table in July cited issues related to fire deaths, including substandard housing, overcrowding, the prevalent use of wood stoves and the lack of a mechanism to enforce compliance with building and fire codes.

The coroner’s report also found that First Nations children younger than 10 had the highest fire-related mortality rate in the province, which was 86 times greater than non-First Nations children. The report said there were 55 fatal residential fires in Ontario First Nations between 2008 and 2017 and 21 of the victims in those blazes were under the age of 10. Mr. Trudeau said that these statistics are horrific and unacceptable.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) however cannot say how many people have died in the past five years on reserve as a result of fire because First Nations are not required to provide fatality information to the department.

The department also said local chiefs and councils have the authority to create by-laws to adopt provincial or national fire building codes for on-reserve infrastructure and it requires infrastructure built with government funding to comply with all relevant codes and standards, including fire and building codes. Mr. Wernick said Ottawa has no mechanism for knowing the condition of buildings on reserve other than asking the First Nation to send a report to them.

In March, a Statistics Canada study, commissioned by The National Indigenous Fire Safety Council (NIFSC) Project and funded by ISC, reported bleak statistics, including that Indigenous peoples across Canada are more than five times likelier to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people.

Mr. Trudeau said Friday that the federal government has committed to closing the gaps in funding and opportunities for Indigenous people, particularly children. He said there is more to do on safety, opportunities and investments.

The Liberal Leader also listed off a number of areas where his government worked with Indigenous communities and leadership to close gaps including on education, housing and lifting more than 100 long-term drinking-water advisories. As of Friday, ISC’s website said that 51 advisories remain in 32 communities (some have more than one). ISC has not provided a new timeline for when advisories will be lifted.

When asked to respond to The Globe’s reporting on the lack of fire standards in First Nations communities, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in Mississauga on Friday that the death rates related to fire in First Nations communities is a “failure” and said rebuilding trust between the federal government and Indigenous Peoples will be a priority for a Conservative government.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said fire-related deaths are common partly because of a lack of infrastructure and the housing crisis must be addressed on reserve. He also said he believes the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that buildings erected on reserve have to meet standards and be safe for people to live in.

Mr. O’Toole also said Friday that on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the country will recommit to reconciliation and then raise the flags “as a sign of that commitment of building a strong and better Canada in the future. He said he is very proud of the country “despite the scars from our past.”

Mr. Trudeau said that flags on federal buildings will fly at half-mast until it is clear Indigenous people are happy to raise them again. In May, the flags were lowered until further notice to honour Indigenous children who lost their lives at residential schools. Mr. Singh has said that the flags flying at half-mast sends an important message.

With a report from Menaka Raman-Wilms in Ottawa

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