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B.C. First Nations blame province; feds for forest fires

The following is an opinion piece submitted by the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council:

Ottawa and the province carry much of the blame for the burning of B.C. this summer and all British Columbians have been ill served by these two governments, according to the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council (FNFC).

“While nature can be blamed for the conditions that have lead to this crisis, it is political deafness to the warnings, political blindness to the need for action and a disgraceful political failure to live up to responsibilities and commitments that are to blame for extent of the catastrophe now facing so many in the province,” said FNFC President Leonard Thomas.

As hundreds of fires continue to rage, with more threatened as the peak fire month of August continues, First Nations and other communities in the hot zones continue to be evacuated,  Leonard said: “None of this comes as a surprise.”

“First Nations and others have been warning for years that the pine beetle that devastated the northern and interior forests had created a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Successive hot summers and warm winters have made these 14-million hectares of destruction even more dangerous.

“In 2005, it seemed the province, the then-Liberal federal government and the then-Conservative opposition realized the danger. Money was committed to mitigate the dangers to lives and communities by managing the impacts of the pine beetle."

Yet the Conservatives were elected and the promises were broken. Even though the pine beetle continued to kill forests and we continued with consecutive warm winters and dry hot summers, governments ignored all warnings – even when an all-party Commons committee last year unanimously called for it to provide sufficient political and cash resources to deal with this crisis.

The FNFC also questions the B.C. government’s handling of the crisis, noting it is has provided limited funds to address it and – even more strangely – has refused to press the federal government to deliver the $100-million-a-year-for-10-years that has been promised to BC.

If the promises had been honoured, B.C. First Nations would have received $80 million by now – which would have gone a long way toward making a majority of their communities much safer – and the rest of B.C. would have received $320 million.

“Our First Nations are not the only ones who have been cheated,” Thomas said. “Non First Nations communities have lost four times as much, and we have been surprised at what little effort the provincial government has put into this argument.”

Thomas said that, given how totally underprepared and underfunded the B.C. government was for this year’s fire season, it is clear that it never took this crisis seriously enough.

The federal government’s claims of help are pure political smoke and mirrors, Thomas said.

It has spent or allocated $200 million over four years, but barely half that money had come to B.C. or is earmarked for the province,. What is more, the Conservative government did not transfer the money to B.C. as the previous Liberal government had done, but instead controlled the dollars itself.

Of the dollars earmarked or spent in B.C., the lion’s share has gone to infrastructure projects in Conservative-held ridings. The projects may have been good ones, but they did not address the pine beetle threat.

The final salt on the wound came in this year’s budget when the pine beetle fund was officially abandoned – after being absent in the 2008 budget – but British Columbians were told they would still get their pine beetle funds from the new Community Adjustment Fund.

 Thomas said: “It turns out Western Economic Diversification has been given just $60 million this year for B.C. to help any community that is dependent on one industry – be it mining, or forestry or anything else. It already has more than 1,000 applications for this money and has declared that the pine beetle is not a priority. How can the government claim this makes up for a promised $100 million a year fund to address just the pine beetle crisis?”

Thomas said that given the broken promises, it comes as no surprise that B.C.’s federal cabinet members and federal B.C. Conservative Caucus have refused repeated requests over the past year for meetings and have offered no public support for the FNFC’s battle to obtain promised funding for B.C..

“But why has the province remained silent? Why hasn’t it fought with us to ensure British Columbia receives what it was promised?”

Thomas called on the federal government to immediately reinstate the $1 billion pledge. He said it must provide a minimum of $100 million ($20 million of this to First Nations) to allow forest fuel management and fire control work to commence during the six- to eight-month window between the end of the current fire season and the beginning of next year’s season.

“Our priorities right now are this year’s fires. We can only pray for the brave firefighters combating these infernos and pray that the good luck that has spared lives so far will continue for the rest of this season,” Thomas said.

“But we must also be ready to hit the ground running in the fall to make our communities safer for next year, which could be as bad, or even worse, and more costly in terms of lives and communities,” Thomas said.