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No way to enforce fire codes on First Nations, and new law would be costly: document

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OTTAWA — There is no way to enforce building or fire codes on First Nations and pursuing a legislative fix would require significant time and money, federal officials warn in an internal briefing document.

But Blaine Wiggins, the senior director of the Indigenous Fire Marshals Service, said that enforcement gap has “catastrophic” consequences.

House fires have long posed a major safety risk to those living on reserve, with several children dying in blazes that broke out in communities earlier this year in southern Alberta and northern Ontario.

Indigenous leaders and experts tie the high number of deadly house fires on reserves to a lack of proper housing and overcrowding, as well as insufficient funding and education around fire protection.

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Both the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada have called on Ottawa to pass legislation to apply building and fire codes to First Nations communities, and mandate inspections.

But a briefing document prepared for the deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada says there is currently no way to enforce provincial or national building or fire codes for buildings on reserves.

The document, which was obtained by The Canadian Press through an access-to-information request, says the department can make sure the infrastructure it funds adheres to such codes but the only other enforcement option for individual First Nations is by passing “ad hoc bylaws.”

“While there is a long-standing recognition of the need to address compliance with respect to building and fire codes for other infrastructure and housing, there is not broad support for an approach for enforcing on-reserve building and fire code,” officials said.

Provincial fire services can condemn a building off-reserve if they feel it puts the lives of people inside in danger but that is more complex for on-reserve structures, the document said.

“As most fire deaths occur in residential buildings, enacting a similar approach to on-reserve communities would mean that First Nations individuals could be restricted from accessing their own property on First Nation land,” officials said in the briefing note.

“Such an approach requires careful consideration and would require significant consultation.”

Wiggins says whether it’s new legislation or a bylaw a First Nation has enacted, the government must provide the necessary funding and resources to ensure these standards can be met.

“There’s concern within the First Nations leadership, just like with other legislation, once legislation is put in place the federal government hasn’t funded it properly, so hence it’s failed,” he said.

The briefing document appears to show federal bureaucrats feel the same. Fire protection, the officials said, isn’t legislated as an essential service, and efforts underway to designate First Nations policing as essential have a high cost.

“A legislative approach to fire protection would likely follow a similar path requiring early and significant commitments to funding and program,” the document reads.

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said in a statement that the government is not planning to legislate fire protection after consulting First Nations partners and communities.

“It was determined that legislation would not be the best approach at this time. Rather, the focus should remain on identifying and understanding the gaps that currently exist and working to close them together,” the statement read.

“Should legislation be identified as a priority by Indigenous leadership at a future point, the federal government will be receptive to this advice and is open to working collaboratively.”

The Department of Indigenous Services is currently working with the Assembly of First Nations to roll out a new fire protection strategy to improve the use of fire codes.

In 2021, the Ontario chief coroner said in a report on fire deaths on First Nations that there is “jurisdictional neglect.”

That review, which followed several fatal fires on Ontario reserves, said because First Nations lands are regulated by the federal Indian Act, provincial buildings codes generally don’t apply and First Nations often end up falling through the cracks.

“Disputes between federal and provincial governments over their respective jurisdictions has contributed to chronic underfunding and fragmented and inadequate services being delivered to Indigenous communities,” the review concluded.

It also said most fatal fires on First Nations happened in a home missing a smoke alarm, or had one that didn’t work.

That’s one area where Wiggins believes Ottawa must take action.

“Every jurisdiction is legally required to have a smoke alarm at home … except First Nations,” he said. “First Nations are not required by any legislation to have that simple tool.

“We’ve asked the federal government, just pass the legislation that says you have to working smoke alarms in a home … nothing anything more complicated than that and then give us the mandate to help every community meet that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.

 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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Conservatives are ‘fearmongering’ over assault-style gun ban: public safety minister

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OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino accuses the Conservatives of “whipping up fear” that the Liberal government is outlawing ordinary long guns and hunting rifles.

In an interview, Mendicino says the government only wants to reinforce a regulatory ban on assault-style firearms like the AR-15 by enshrining a definition in legislation, and it is prepared to work with MPs to get it right.

He insists the government has no intention whatsoever of going after everyday long guns and hunting rifles, calling the notion “Conservative fearmongering.”

In May 2020, the Liberal government announced a ban through order-in-council on over 1,500 models and variants of what it considers assault-style firearms, such as the AR-15 and the Ruger Mini-14.

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The Liberals recently proposed including an evergreen definition of a prohibited assault-style firearm in gun-control legislation being studied by a House of Commons committee.

The Conservatives claim the government’s amendment amounts to the most significant hunting rifle ban in the history of Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Joly seeks reprimand of Russian ambassador as embassy tweets against LGBTQ community

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OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has asked her department to summon Russia’s ambassador over social media postings against LGBTQ people.

In recent days, Russia’s embassy in Ottawa has posted on Twitter and Telegram that the West is imposing on Russia’s family values, and arguing that families can only involve a man, a woman and children.

The embassy has posted images of a crossed-out rainbow flag and Orthodox icons of Adam and Eve.

The tweets came as Russia expanded a ban on exposing children to so-called homosexual propaganda, meaning authorities can now prosecute Russians for doing things they argue might entice adults to be gay or transgender.

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Joly’s office says the posts amount to “hateful propaganda” that must be called out and “an attack on the Canadian values of acceptance and tolerance.”

If Global Affairs Canada follows Joly’s request, it will be the third time the department has summoned ambassador Oleg Stepanov this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Work hard and never give up, Michelle O’Bonsawin says during Supreme Court welcome

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OTTAWA — The newest member of the Supreme Court of Canada says her journey has not been an easy one, but it has been meaningful and rewarding.

Members of the legal community and Michelle O’Bonsawin’s fellow judges welcomed her to the bench in a ceremony today.

O’Bonsawin, who replaced the retiring Michael Moldaver on Sept. 1, is a bilingual Franco-Ontarian and an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation.

O’Bonsawin says she is a big believer that if a person has a goal, works hard and never gives up, they can achieve their dreams.

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She adds that while she has made mistakes and fallen down, those missteps have been her teacher.

Richard Wagner, the chief justice of Canada, praises O’Bonsawin’s generosity and volunteer activities, noting she shares his passion for open courts, access to justice and education.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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