Indigenous firefighters from across Canada gathered at in Montreal for the fourth annual Indigenous Fire Safety Conference September 14-15. Over 200 attendees took part in courses that offered certification in various fields including Auto Extrication, Emergency Operation Centres Essentials and Wildfire Response.
However, when Fire Chief Larry Sockabasin of Tobique First Nation, New Brunswick, looked over the courses offered, he opted for Resilient Minds, which focuses on building the psychological strength of Indigenous First Responders.
“Mental health goes undetected in our department. I’ve seen firefighters hurting and they didn’t tell me about it until we were off the job. I want to do something more to help,” he said.
Sockabasin has been a volunteer firefighter for 11 years and fire chief for the past five years for the Maliseet community of Tobique. He has already reached out to his band council to have the Resilient Minds workshop shared with his firefighters.
Sockabasin appreciated the workshop’s effort to reflect Indigenous values. “I’m not a classroom person, but they made the material very relatable. I also liked that they talked about sweats and spiritual sides of healing,” he said.
The course was led by 20-year firefighter Steve Fraser, who currently works with the Vancouver Fire Department. Fraser is a fierce advocate of mental health for firefighters, which is why he helped to create Resilient Minds. The program strives to help firefighters recognize the effects of psychological stress and trauma, and to communicate with people who are struggling. Fraser shared personal stories of suffering and trauma that resonated with the firefighters in the room. More importantly, he explained how to recognize signs of trauma in a fire team.
Billy Moffat, the Fire Chief of Kawawachikamach, Quebec, admits he comes from a generation not raised attuned to their emotions. The 62-year-old was surprised by his interest in the course and his own self-realization of a need for self-care.
“I was kind of skeptical at first. But after about an hour in, I said, ‘I can relate to this’. I’ve been policing for 42 years and 25 years as a firefighter and I’ve seen every kind of tragedy. And now it doesn’t bother me. And I realized during the course, ‘holy shit’ that’s me with all this trauma. And it’s time for me to work on self-care. Not wait for retirement.”
Moffat plans to bring the mental health training course to the police, game wardens and firefighters in Kawawachikamach. However, he would like the course to reflect the Naskapi culture.
Alexis Beer, a coordinator with Resilient Minds, says they are ready to address this concern. He says their plan is to consult with communities before offering the two-day course. “The intent is for the instructor to learn about the community and find what traditions or cultural components they’d like to incorporate into the program. This includes things such as a blessing from an Elder, a smudge to start the course or a ceremonial fire, sweat or meal.”
Indigenous people across Canada are five times more likely to die in a fire compared to the rest of the population. That number increases to over 10 times for First Nations people living on reserve.
Waswanipi Fire Chief Darren Saganash says he would like to bring the course to his fire team but wants to make sure the instructors understand the realities of a firefighter on a reserve versus an urban setting.
“You’re going to get a call and the person you’re responding to could be your cousin or your father or mother,” Saganash related. “We know everybody. It’s a small community and 100% of the time you’re going to know the person and that makes it even more difficult as a firefighter.”
Saganash described a recent call during which he performed CPR on a fellow firefighter. “We tried to revive him but were unsuccessful and he passed away. He was a member of our fire team. It was very difficult for all of us. It’s something that we will probably never get through.”
If your community would like Resilient Minds to hold a workshop, contact Alexis Beer at email@example.com or 604-798-5122.