The provincial government reiterated its stance that there is no need to declare a state of emergency in northern Ontario as 151 wildfires ravage the region, causing over 3,000 evacuations so far.
Such a declaration should only be used if resources are unavailable, the ministries of the Solicitor General and of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources & Forestry (MNDMNRF) said in a background media briefing Monday morning. The affected communities have all the support they need from the province, officials said.
The choice to double down on the stance came as Premier Doug Ford claimed the province would "spare no expense" to address the issue and would provide everything needed.
"Anything they need, they're going to get. I will spare no expense, and we'll make sure that the resources will always continue until we get these fires underway," Ford said at an announcement in Ottawa.
He added that the province is "throwing every single resource we have up there," and that he'll take a first-hand look in Thunder Bay on Wednesday.
But the premier's remarks were at odds with what people on the ground say is happening at the moment as they issued an urgent plea for more help.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents dozens of First Nations in the region, said the military is having to take on much of the workload as provincial officials scramble.
"The partners from Ontario have said time and time again, whether it be [the MNDMNRF] or Emergency Management Ontario, that they do not have the resources to meet all the demand. So they have been putting in RFAs — requests for assistance — to the military. And it's really been the military that's provided comfort to ourselves and the communities knowing that they're there to help," said Michelle Gervais, an emergency response expert working with the NAN.
NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said there is clearly a "disconnect" between senior provincial officials and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
Gervais said she's currently working with the provincial government and military officials to activate Ontario's mass evacuation plan for the far north.
"I mean, if you aren't in a state of emergency, then why would you be looking at this plan?” she said.
Things are so bad in some spots that about 100 members of Poplar Hill First Nation, who were evacuated to Kenora, have decided to go back into the high-risk community, saying the high school gymnasium where they stayed did not have enough working washrooms or showers, Fiddler said.
The rest of the community is in discussions about returning as well, Gervais said.
Things could get worse very soon, she said.
If the weather unfolds the way the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry predicts, several large communities could need to evacuate on the same day — meaning thousands could have to be moved at once, Gervais said.
The province will be short about 1,300 beds if the up to 6,000 potential evacuees need to leave their communities — not including non-First Nations like Red Lake, which could add the need for hundreds more beds, she said.
"There are not enough resources to pull off what they put on paper," she said.
Right now, a lack of firefighters means some are having to be pulled off certain fires and relocated to others, she said.
And issues with recertification mean local firefighters are sitting on the sidelines while the province imports firefighters from other parts of Canada and Mexico, Fiddler said.
Staff burnout is also a concern, as the current evacuation model relies on communities opening their doors to evacuees.
"But there's no support from the province when they ask for help," Gervais said.
"When you have staff working 18 hours a day for days on end, it will burn people out," Fiddler said.
The crisis speaks to a lack of long-term planning for the province's wildfire problem, which is expected to get worse as the effects of climate change intensify, Fiddler said. He called on the province to help communities prepare to defend themselves, instead of remaining reliant on the province for aid.
The province has issued an emergency area order for much of northern Ontario, which has banned some industry operations that carry a higher risk of fires.
But an official with the Ministry of the Solicitor General said at Monday's briefing that the province had received legal advice not to declare a state of emergency.
They did not answer QP Briefing's question about whether that meant their lawyers had said it would be illegal to declare a state of emergency.
"That's just so gross," Fiddler said, saying he was "taken aback" when he heard Solicitor General Deputy Minister Mario Di Tommaso use the rationale previously.
"[To] rely on your legal counsel to make that decision for you. And he's the deputy minister that's supposed to oversee this very important work, and either he doesn't understand what he's responsible for, or he's afraid to make those decisions, and counting on a lawyer to make that decision for him. That's wrong."
Fiddler praised British Columbia's government for declaring a state of emergency over its current wildfires.
Ministry officials in the background briefing downplayed Ontario's wildfire situation in comparison to B.C., saying it's "not as intense or as severe."
The NDP has called for the province to declare a state of emergency. Liberal candidate Tyler Watt noted the government cut $20 million from the forest fire fighting budget this year.
The ongoing northern Ontario forest fires are devastating. The decision by Premier Doug Ford’s government to cut $20 million from the province’s fire fighting program this year was callous and very shortsighted. #onpolihttps://t.co/xr4VXT97Y3
— Tyler Watt 🇨🇦 (@tylerwatt90) July 21, 2021
Fiddler said he plans to be in Thunder Bay to meet with the premier.
“I want to be able to speak with him directly on some of this, because ... I don't know how much they actually get briefed on what is going on here," he said.
Fiddler said the situation reminded him of Pikangikum First Nation earlier this year, when the community expelled OPP officers following allegations of abuse.
"Again, when we asked for services and supports outside of the provincial jurisdiction, they said, 'No, no, no, we can handle this.' And meanwhile, the community did not have access to nursing coverage or policing, for days and weeks," he said, emphasizing his "growing frustration" with the government.