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Tragedy in Ahtahkakoop First Nation house fire is a stark reminder that immediate action needed

The recent tragedy in Ahtahkakoop First Nation (SK) in which two people lost their lives in a house fire is a stark reminder that immediate action is needed to support First Nations fire services across the country and points to the inadequate funding formula used by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) based on population, resulting in smaller communities being deprived of necessary resources and fire services for their citizens.

“I want to offer my sincere condolences to those affected by the recent tragedy in Ahtahkakoop First Nation,” said AFN Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, who holds the Justice portfolio for the AFN Executive. “This should compel all of us to take immediate action to get better support for fire services in our communities. These are sadly not isolated incidents and they happen all too frequently. They are preventable and must stop. We are all aware of recent reports that show Aboriginal Affairs is shuffling much needed money for First Nations infrastructure into social programs, only serving to shortchange resources in both areas. Over half a billion dollars for First Nations infrastructure funding has been reallocated to other programs in the past six years to make up for a shortfall due to the 2% cap on funding increases imposed since 1996. These resources could and should be used to help to prevent fire tragedies in First Nations communities.”

Many First Nations homes use wood stoves due to the high cost of heating fuel and electricity. Resources should be in place so WETT (Wood Energy Technology Transfer) certified inspectors can inspect the installation of any woodstove for safety. The absence of a fire department to inspect homes and provide guidance and advice on fire hazards can lead to tragedies.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, “The federal government has talked about introducing legislation to enforce regulations for housing on reserve. Regulations for housing without support and funding to build proper housing are just words on paper and will not change the situation. This is a limited and ineffective approach that will only download responsibility and liability to First Nations without needed resources. It is similar to the government’s approach on drinking water that only resulted in regulations but will not change what is coming out of the tap. The federal government should be working with First Nations immediately to address the necessary resources to ensure prevention and safe homes for First Nations people.”

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, in his report on the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada, set out recommendations for Canada to comply with minimum international standards for treatment of Indigenous peoples and improve socio-economic conditions which includes better housing. He noted in his report: “The housing situation in First Nations communities has reached a crisis level. Overcrowded housing is endemic. Homes are in need of major repairs, including plumbing and electrical work.”

Addressing First Nations housing needs requires a unified effort by all sectors of the public and all levels of government. AFN is committed to continued efforts to ensure all First Nations have safe and healthy, adequate and affordable housing in their communities.

The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada. Follow AFN on Twitter @AFN_Comms, @AFN_Updates.

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