March 25, 2010. Coast Salish Territory/ Vancouver: The federal government is being placed on notice that it and its ministers and MPs from BC will be held responsible and accountable should this year’s feared record fire season lead to tragedy for First Nations communities, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and BC First Nations Forestry Council warned today.
“When governments and politicians ignore warnings year after year, abandon promises, dismiss scientific evidence, and make the conscious choice to leave impoverished communities to their fate, they must be held accountable if their recklessness leads to disaster,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
“We pray we can again beat the odds and survive another year with no loss of life or communities, but after years of dodging this bullet – and with the current record warm winter indicating a fire season to eclipse all others – the odds are running out.”
Since the current Conservative government took office in early 2006 BC First Nations have tried everything to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper to live up to his promises and to take the threats to our communities seriously. The government and its ministers and MPs have heard from experts, scientists, and even its own natural resource committee members and cannot claim to be ignorant of the extent of the pine beetle devastation or the risks this presents for our communities.
“By their broken promise, inaction and repeated failure to even respond to our letters, they have effectively chosen to gamble with the homes, lives and futures of tens of thousands of people in more than 100 communities,” said First Nations Forestry Council’s President Chief Bill Williams.
The federal government was yet again approached in January – before the Vancouver Olympics began – to commit to finally providing the resources needed to make communities safer by addressing the wildfire safety and forest fuel management issues created by the MPB. For the first time in almost two years, a federal cabinet minister from BC agreed to meet with the First Nations Forestry Council on this issue.
Stockwell Day, then the Minister of International Trade, agreed to see what funding might be directed to this issue. Five days later he was appointed chairman of the treasury board with the responsibility of finding savings and no more has been head about MPB funding. Now the Olympics are over and a federal budget has been delivered that does not appear to contain a cent for this.
“The federal and provincial government saw the warm winter weather threaten the reputation of the Vancouver Olympics. Whatever money and resources were needed to deal with the problem were provided,” said Chief Williams.
“Meanwhile, our forest dependent First Nations are watching the record warm winter and its lack of snow and ground moisture and fear it will lead to a perfect storm of forest fire conditions – in all forest areas, but particularly the MPB zone – that could finally incinerate their communities. They are completely ignored by the politicians.”
Grand Chief Phillip said the BC government, through its silence, must also shoulder part of the responsibility and accountability for the abandoning of both First Nations communities and non-aboriginal municipalities in the MPB zone.
The federal promise was to provide BC with $100 million a year for 10 years to address the MPB crisis. The province agreed to provide 20% of this funding or $20 million a year to first Nations. Unfortunately, the federal government chose not to transfer the money to BC. Instead it administered funds though its own departments and it only provided $200 million specifically for MPB funding.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Summit, the BC Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Forestry Council asked BC to work with them to pressure the federal government to live up to its commitment. They noted BC has lost $80 million a year for the past three years and that the earlier funding that was delivered by Ottawa was controlled by Ottawa and often went to fund pet infrastructure projects in Conservative-held federal BC ridings. Despite this, Premier Gordon Campbell and his successive forestry ministers declined to play any part in the FNFC’s campaign to get the promised federal dollars.
“The BC government is even more aware of the extent of the MPB crisis than the federal government so its silence is baffling,” said Grand Chief Phillip. “It has let down not only First Nations in BC, but all communities struggling with this.”
The UBCIC and FNFC are calling on the federal government to act now and provide $20 million a year for three years to address the fire threat though wildfire a planning and forest fuel management, and $5 million a year for programmes to help generate economic opportunities and capacity.
They are also calling on the BC government to finally do its duty and fight for what is owed to First Nations and to all British Columbians.
“There can be no more excuses,” said Grand Chief Phillip. “We have seen what economists estimate to be $7 billion spent on the Winter Games. We saw the federal government last year spend an average of $1.4 billion of every job it managed to save through a bailout of Ontario’s auto industry.
“Over three years, the money we are seeking, after years of being denied, will amount to just over one percent of the money spent to stage the winter Olympics, or the equivalent of what the federal government spent to save 53 auto jobs in Ontario last year.”
Chief Williams said the federal government has a clear cut choice. “It can continue to play with terrible odds and gamble with lives and communities. Or it can belatedly start to honour its promise, provide the funding that is necessary, and demonstrate that our lives and communities are worth at least as much as saving 53 jobs in Ontario.”
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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Phone: (604) 684-0231
Chief Bill Williams, Vice Chairman, BC First Nations Forestry Council. Phone: (604) 921-4488
Backgrounder: UBCIC Resolution 2010-09, Funding to Address Safety of First Nations Communities Resulting from the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic and Risk of Fire http://www.ubcic.bc.ca/files/PDF/UBCIC_CC03-18_Resolution_2010-09_MPBFundignFNFireSafety.pdf