News — 19 April 2017

By Chris Marchand

While local, provincial and federal officials have long planned and prepared for how to respond to natural disasters in northwestern communities, how to respond to a human catastrophe requires an altogether different kind of plan.

Last week’s Northwest Response Forum brought emergency services personnel from around the region up to date on a tri-partite protocol that is under development to respond to social emergencies much like the rash of suicides, often involving youth, that have devastated remote First Nations communities.

Aileen Cassells, Deputy Chief Emergency Management Operations, Office of the Fire Marshall and Emergency Management said the response protocol, due to be finalized in the coming months is the result of several years of meetings and self-reflection by Grand Council Treaty 3, Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and Mushkegowuk Council in determining the causes of these problems and the actions necessary to address them.

Following the publication of Mushkegowuk Council’s The People’s Inquiry Into Our Suicide Pandemic in Jan. 2016, NAN Chief Alvin Fiddler’s call to action for the provincial and federal governments has led to focus groups and summits in Kenora, Timmins and Thunder Bay to work on the issue.

Defining a social emergency as: an event or situation, with the exception of natural disasters requiring community evacuation, that exceeds the capacity of the community and requires the immediate response of governments, external agencies and service providers.

In its early stages the protocol is being developed in respect to remote communities first.

“I think why the decision was made to focus on the remote communities first was because of some of the challenges they face,” said Cassells. “Particularly in dealing with the isolation — in many cases you’re flying hours for access to services and you may have limited access to social services in your community as it is. If you’re talking about a community of 500 or 1,000, the community’s resources may be affected by the events as well — in which case it’s very difficult to serve in the capacity that you’ve been trained.”

While social emergencies can be complex and require tailored responses, Cassells says the protocol offers a tool to launch that response faster and make more efficient use of the resources available.

“The protocol is a roadmap for how we’re going to get to a final document, a guide for how we’re going to respond to social emergencies,” said Cassells. “Who’s the lead? How do they declare (a social emergency)? What type of services can you access? Who provides those services? Who pays for all of it? It’s really the beginning of the journey.”

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