Ottawa must work with indigenous communities to reduce climate disasters, experts say

According to a new report on Canada’s disaster resilience, First Nations and Indigenous communities in Canada need more support from the federal government to cope with future disasters related to climate change.

While people living in these communities are more likely to experience climate-related disasters, experts say not enough is being done to help them plan and prepare as the weather in Canada turns more extreme.

“The countries I work with often feel like they’re being ignored or left out,” said Amy Cardinal Christianson, a researcher with the Canadian Forest Service who studies the impact of wildfires on indigenous communities.

Christianson, Métis from the Treaty 8 Territory in Alberta, said indigenous communities at increased risk from wildfires and other natural disasters say they are being neglected by the government.

“Most felt that if they had the resources, they could provide better support and response in their communities,” she said.

Christianson’s conclusions are supported by a new report prepared by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) at the request of Public Safety Canada and released this week.

The report, which examines Canada’s ability to deal with natural disasters, argues that governments are not making good use of indigenous knowledge and practices that can mitigate climate-related events such as fires and floods.

“Nowhere is this more urgent than in supporting Indigenous communities with disaster preparedness and resilience,” the report said, arguing that Canada needs to strengthen local infrastructure and practices.

The threat of climate-driven disasters is expected to increase in the near future as Canada’s climate warms faster than the global average, leading to more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Research shows that Indigenous communities in Canada will be disproportionately affected, in part because they are often rural and remote.

Amy Cardinal Christianson, a fire researcher, said Indigenous communities lack the resources they need to protect themselves from natural disasters. (CBC)

According to Natural Resources Canada, primarily Indigenous communities accounted for 48 percent of the communities evacuated as a result of wildfires between 1980 and 2021 — even though Indigenous people make up just five percent of Canada’s population.

“Our research shows that these communities need to be adapted to safely prepare for and respond to these events,” Christianson said.

Indigenous Services Canada provides funding and support to help Indigenous communities cope with the impacts of climate change, but experts say access to those programs can be difficult.

“It’s difficult for an outside user to track, know and understand all those different programs,” said Scott Vaughan, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Sustainable Development who chaired the CCA report.

The report found that indigenous communities often have the know-how to protect themselves from emergencies but “do not have the resources or authority to take effective action.”

In a statement to CBC News, Indigenous Services Canada pointed to a $259 million federal investment over five years “to strengthen First Nations’ capacity to prepare for, respond to and mitigate emergencies.”

The agency also cited $100 million in investment from 2016 to the end of 2021 for 89 climate-related infrastructure projects, such as levees, sea defenses and erosion control. The government says 54 of those projects have been completed.

Communities describe ‘paternalistic’ government approach

Aside from calls for more funding and more accessible programs, experts say the federal government needs to make fundamental changes in the way it interacts with and supports indigenous communities.

“Many of the complaints were about a more paternalistic relationship between the government and the communities,” Christianson said of her research.

She said people described “government agencies that want to come and help and in fact don’t listen to local opinion or local needs.”

Vaughan said Ottawa should take a more collaborative and inclusive approach to helping communities prepare for climate change — ideally one that would draw on indigenous knowledge and practices and empower communities to lead mitigation work.

“It’s not so much a mandate. It’s a practice,” he said. “How can you look at indigenous knowledge in a way that can better inform practices?”

Long-standing indigenous practices such as “cultural burning” — low-intensity controlled fires that can reduce the intensity of unplanned wildfires — are among the mitigation strategies that could be used more widely, the report said.

Christianson said cultural burns have been largely eliminated as a result of government regulations.

Leave a Comment