As the ash settles on Canada’s record wildfire season, “business as usual from the federal government is not going to cut it,” NDP MP Niki Ashton told Canada’s National Observer.

Last year, the auditor general released a scathing report highlighting the failure of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to prepare robust emergency management plans for First Nations. The audit noted ISC’s regional emergency plans were absent or outdated and no risk assessment had been done on the hardest hit nations, even after an earlier 2013 audit called for one. The department also spent three and a half times more on responding to emergencies than it did preparing for and preventing them over the previous three years, the audit found.

"The Liberals are not meeting the moment are not meeting the moment," Ashton added.

And yet, Ottawa’s mini-budget Tuesday did little to add new measures to address the wildfire crisis despite forecasts of it worsening. Instead, the federal government merely reiterated its current plans through the Emergency Management Assistance Program.

The department was forced to top up the program since the spring budget to the tune of $260 million, with at least $148.3 million spent responding to this year’s wildfire season’s impacts on First Nations alone. In context, the baseline pot of funding for the program is $29.3 million.

Indigenous Services Canada has also failed to hire more emergency management co-ordinators since the audit called on the department to do so. There are plans to hire more once a new risk assessment is finalized next spring, according to Indigenous Services Canada. But questions remain if that is enough time to make a difference ahead of next year’s wildfire season.

Ashton, the NDP’s deputy critic for Indigenous Services Canada, and her colleagues with the Green Party say the Liberals are not doing enough on climate preparation and action, which disproportionately impacts First Nations.

It’s personal for Ashton; one First Nation in her constituency was evacuated two years ago because of wildfires and the community didn’t even have a fire truck. Ashton also hears about concerns over how the changing climate is impacting hunts and traplines, and there is worry that the ice roads will freeze in a warming planet.

"So the fact that the fall economic statement has so little when it comes to what Indigenous communities need in the face of climate change is deeply disappointing," Ashton said.

Niki Ashton, the NDP’s deputy critic for Indigenous Services Canada, and her colleagues with the Green Party say the Liberals are not doing enough on climate preparation and action, which disproportionately impacts First Nations. #CanPoli #Climate

Both the NDP and the Greens are calling for a national firefighting service to co-ordinate resources between provinces and territories to help mitigate the worst of the wildfire crisis. This is common sense policy for what is a national emergency, Ashton explained in a recent interview with Canada’s National Observer.

“The extent, the severity [of this year’s wildfires] is a new situation that we're facing,” she said.

Ashton’s comments come after Canada’s National Observer published a multi-story investigation into the disproportionate impacts of wildfire evacuations on First Nations. The analysis of federal data found more than 90 First Nations have been evacuated due to wildfires so far this season — more than the previous four years combined.

Elizabeth May, deputy leader of the Green Party, believes Canada needs to catch up with our European and American counterparts at the national level when it comes to emergency preparedness.

For example, the European Union has recently purchased 12 Canadair CL-415 water bombers. They will be stationed across six countries — France, Croatia, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain — that have been hit the hardest by rising temperatures, drought and wildfire crises.

Meanwhile, “there are no planes being built right now in Canada,” May said.

She said it’s a sad reality that the EU functions better with 23 nation-states and over 30 languages than Canada can with two official languages, 10 provinces, three territories and one federal government.

A portrait of Elizabeth May a day following the Fall Ecnomic Statement 2023. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada's National Observer

She also pointed out Canada lacks an equivalent to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

“We need to rethink our co-ordinated national response,” May added.

In Canada, municipal evacuations are provincial and territorial jurisdiction, whereas Indigenous communities’ evacuations are a federal responsibility.

Rainbow Eyes, Indigenous affairs critic for the federal Green Party, believes the wildfire crisis proves the Canadian government has left Indigenous Peoples to the wolves.

“It's unimaginable to me what it’s like. It’s like the lands being taken away again, with so many reserves not getting the support necessary,” she said.

Climate change does not impact people in the same way, said McGill University climate researcher Mohammad Reza Alizadeh. Alizadeh said his research shows Indigenous Peoples have fewer resources and less robust infrastructure than non-Indigenous communities and are impacted by climate disasters at a higher rate.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu told Canada’s National Observer the federal government is taking an Indigenous-led approach to emergency management, supporting communities to develop their own plans instead of having the federal government informing them where they will end up.

“Now communities have a choice in where they will go and how they will support people in crisis,” she said.

Hajdu said the work was in response to the auditor general report but noted some of that work was ongoing before its release. There are still no wildfire agreements signed between provinces, First Nations and the federal government, according to a department official, as recommended by the audit.

The Conservative Party of Canada has been quiet on the wildfire crisis, instead hammering the Liberals on the cost-of-living crisis and inflation. Meanwhile, the Liberals are taking aim at the Conservatives’ climate record. Hajdu took a jab at Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre for “running around talking about everything but climate.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
November 23, 2023, 04:46 pm

This story was updated to reflect additional comment from Niki Ashton.

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I like Niki Ashton. I didn't vote for her when she ran for leader of the NDP, because she isn't very politic--I just couldn't see her handling the media effectively and, like, winning and stuff. What she says is usually right but she always comes off kind of professional-protestor about it, a bit lecture-ish. I voted for Charlie Angus 'cause he's a straight shooter and says good solid stuff, but in an unpretentious straightforward way people can dig. But in a hypothetical NDP government I would absolutely want Ashton to be a strong and influential presence in cabinet.

Yup. Me too. Niki is very often right, but way too far into left wing jargon for the general electorate. Too bad, because we need more MPs that think like her running the country.
So: Charlie Angus for Prime Minister!