Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MANFF pullout angers members

Fire chiefs uncertain of future emergency aid

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OTTAWA -- Some native fire chiefs are livid the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters decided to pull out of flood-evacuee assistance without consulting them.

They say they are uncertain what will happen if an evacuation is required during the summer forest-fire season, because nobody is talking to them.

One chief and one former MANFF staffer, who both spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said MANFF is run by the membership, which is made up of fire chiefs from reserves and tribal councils across Manitoba. The fire chiefs elect a board from among their own ranks.

But last week, MANFF's board voted to withdraw its services from flood evacuation without consulting the other fire chiefs.

"Things are getting out of hand," said one fire chief. "Nobody knows what is going to happen now."

MANFF has been co-ordinating the evacuation of more than 2,000 flood-affected reserve residents since the spring of 2011.

In recent months, serious questions have been raised about how it has handled the situation, with allegations of misspending, disorganization and nepotism among them. The federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada launched a management review of MANFF last winter. It has yet to be completed.

One fire chief said anger brewed as news spread of MANFF's withdrawal.

"We're sitting in our communities blind," he said.

He said many fire chiefs have grown increasingly unhappy with the allegations against MANFF, particularly recent news MANFF paid for eight staff members to fly to Toronto for a national ground-search-and-rescue competition.

Former flood liaison officer Ted Ducharme said the trip was "a big drunk on the taxpayers dime" and included sightseeing to Niagara Falls.

The fire chief said a lot of native firefighters or chiefs would have liked to participate in that competition.

"Those guys are not qualified to do that," he said of the staff who went. "It's unbelievable."

The Canadian Red Cross has agreed to work with MANFF and AANDC to assess what the needs of the current evacuees are, but will not say what it is prepared to do beyond that.

AANDC sources say MANFF will still be responsible for other evacuations and emergency management, such as providing sandbags for flooding and co-ordinating community needs if forest fires break out.

The 2011 flood evacuation is the largest endeavour MANFF has undertaken and the federal and provincial governments and MANFF acknowledged it was too much for MANFF to handle.

MANFF has been mostly silent on the issues raised, but released a statement June 4 addressing its decision to withdraw services to evacuees.

"In 2011, MANFF was asked to provide support for a challenging evacuation that was not only outside its mandate, but without precedent in Manitoba," it reads. "It felt that both the board and its employees did the best job possible and hopes that it provided some measure of support to the First Nations people who have been dislocated from their homes and communities for such an extended period of time."

The statement says MANFF will continue to train First Nations firefighters, conduct fire-prevention work on reserves, help prepare emergency-management plans for reserves, oversee short-term evacuations and offer education programs for reserves.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 A14

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