Indigenous Disaster Response

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Indigenous communities may be disproportionately impacted by a variety of emergencies and disasters, including floods, wildfires, and crude oil spills in their traditional territories. This may be the result of several key factors, including:

  • Discordance between Indigenous governance and traditional knowledge versus the externally imposed emergency response apparatus, which can result in failure to utilize local expertise and may also recall traumatic colonial practices.
  • Logistical difficulties in providing emergency services to remote or isolated communities.
  • Variability in local administrative and technical capacity that may hinder active participation in response and recovery operations.
  • Lack of trust (another legacy of colonialism) that may affect coordination or collaboration during the response, and which may impact the utilization of health services.
  • Deep reliance on local ecosystems for food and other resources necessary for economic, socio-cultural, spiritual, and physical well-being (Richmond and Ross, 2009).
  • The existence of profound social and health inequities that may leave Indigenous communities more vulnerable to mental or physical health impacts, and/or less able to respond (Reading and Wein, 2013).

Despite these challenges, some Indigenous communities have used disasters to pursue self-determination and decolonization by assuming leadership during emergency events, clarifying jurisdictional issues, implementing Indigenous ways and means of healing, and developing emergency plans and agreements with provincial and federal governments. An example of this is the recent 2019 Emergency Management Memorandum of Understanding that recognizes BC First Nations “as full partners in the governance and operations of emergency management.” These successes are a hopeful example to other Indigenous communities, and also offer useful approaches for non-Indigenous communities responding to disasters.

The aim of this topic page is to provide Indigenous communities and environmental health professionals with resources that describe and improve upon the current state of emergency response at the community-, provincial-, and federal-level. Case studies are provided to show the ways in which standard practice has been problematic (e.g., effects of evacuation on kin relationships and land-based activities). Finally, we have included a number of reports that reflect on past events in Indigenous communities, and provide powerful examples for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike trying to recover from disasters.

Please see our other Environmental Public Health Emergency Resources:

NCCEH Resources

  • Supporting Indigenous communities during environmental public health emergencies (Eykelbosh et al. 2018)
    This article presents some key considerations for public health practitioners engaging in an emergency response in an Indigenous community and/or their traditional territory. The paper draws on direct personal learning from the Nathan E. Stewart spill in Heiltsuk territory, and incorporates the perspectives of community leadership as well as the public health practitioners engaged in the response.
  • Health effects of oil spills: implications for impacted First nations communities (NCCEH, 2017)
    This presentation, delivered at the at the Centre du savoir sur mesure (CESAM) 1st national symposium, contains a combination of academic research carried out during the Exxon Valdez oil spill as well as a recent diesel spill event that occurred in Heiltsuk territory on BC’s central coast.
  • Community impacts of fuel spills: a case study from BC’s northern coast (NCCEH, 2016)
    This webinar presented by Chief Councillor Marilynn Slett (Heiltsuk Nation), Linda Pillsworth (First Nations Health Authority), and Dr. Angela Eykelbosh (NCCEH) on the environmental public health response to the impacts of the marine diesel spill that occurred near Bella Bella on October 13, 2016.

External Resources

Current roles and responsibilities in Indigenous disaster response

  • Emergency management (Indigenous Services Canada, 2019)
    This webpage provides background on the roles and responsibilities of communities and FPT agencies during emergencies as well as resources specific to wildfires and flooding.
  • Indigenous emergency management: building resiliency together (Public Safety Canada, 2017).
    This presentation provides an overview of a May 2017 meeting that brought together Indigenous leadership with federal, provincial, and territorial ministers. The aim of this meeting was to agree to explore ways to improve engagement and capacity-building within Indigenous communities.
  • Emergency management on First Nations reserves (Library of Parliament, 2015)
    This background paper describes the roles and responsibilities of First Nations governments, provincial governments, and the federal government in on-reserve emergency management. The paper also considers challenges and concerns with respect to emergency management on First Nations reserves.

Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

  • Emergency management (First Nations’ Emergency Services Society, 2019)
    This website outlines how First Nation communities can develop emergency plans and provides links to various resources that can guide communities in this task (while outlining how FNESS can assist communities directly).
  • First Nations emergency management resource and information package (Emergency Management British Columbia, 2018)
    This information package is designed to provide First Nations communities with resources to support emergency management activities at the community level. The toolkit includes a question and answer resource, considerations for developing emergency and evacuation plans, tools for re-entry and recovery planning, as well as information on PreparedBC resources and contact information for EMBC regional offices. A complementary toolkit is EMBC’s Local Authorities and First Nations recovery toolkit (Emergency Management British Columbia, 2018). It is intended to guide local authorities and First Nations as they plan for disaster recovery. It includes guidance on community recovery, infrastructure recovery, demobilization, and debris management and was intended to for use after the 2017 Freshet and Wildfire season.
  • Creating a world-leading response system (Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC), Heiltsuk Tribal Council, 2017)
    After the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill, it was clear that the current oil spill response capacity of the central coast of BC was inadequate and unsafe. This report highlights where the need for response capability is most urgent and outlines a plan for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) near Bella Bella to address this need. This is accompanied by an investigation report, detailing the 48-hours after the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart and the spill that followed. It also outlines the response efforts by the Heiltsuk, and the attendance of other organizations. (***Also for Oil Spills page)
  • Aboriginal disaster resilience planning guide (Justice Institute of BC, 2015)
    This toolkit assists community planners through a process of assessing resilience, building a resilience plan, and implementing that plan. In addition to the guide, the website also hosts a number of related resources, including assessment tools and strategies for community disaster resilience, hazard risk analysis, Indigenous emergency management info for each of the provinces and territories, and a traditional knowledge toolkit that promotes the use of storytelling and talking circles to facilitate transfer of traditional knowledge.

Moving forward: Lessons learned in/from Indigenous communities

  • A First Nation Framework for Emergency Planning: A Community-Based Response to the Health and Social Effects from a Flood (Montesanti et al., 2019)
    This article describes the response of the Siksika First Nation to the 2013 flooding in Southern Alberta, as well as the development of a Community Wellness Plan based on a holistic Indigenous view of health. A key factor is that the Siksika Nation had previously developed its own Peacetime Emergency Plan, which incorporated Indigenous knowledge. The nation’s subsequent ability to act quickly and independently was highlighted as an important contributor to community resilience. Key considerations for an Indigenous disaster and emergency planning framework are described. This is a key resource. (***Also for Psychosocial effects page.)
  • The Fires Awakened Us: Tsilhqot’in Report – 2017 Fires (Verhaeghe et al., 2019)
    This report describes the challenges and successes faced by the Tsilhqot’in First Nation during the 2017 BC wildfires. It identifies a number of core challenges and 33 calls to action aimed at increasing emergency response capacity, promoting resilience, and addressing issues of Tsilhqot’in jurisdiction. The report also describes the creation of a Collaborative Emergency Management Agreement amongst the Tsilhqot’in Nation, the BC government, and the federal government, established in 2017.
  • Trial by fire: Nadleh Whut’en and the Shovel Lake Fire, 2018 (Sharp and Krebs, 2018)
    This report details the challenges and successful approaches used by the Nadleh Whut’en First nation in responding to the Shovel Lake fire. The report also provides a number of recommendations to addressing issues with communications, decision-making, firefighting, evacuation, and recovery encountered by the community.
  • Rebuilding Resilient Indigenous Communities in the RMWB: Final Report (Clark, 2018)
    This report describes the experiences of the Métis and First Nations communities during and after the 2016 Horse Creek wildfire. It provides a number of recommendations to improve emergency management for Indigenous communities, and by doing so hopes to promote reconciliation amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners as a necessary step to building a more resilient RMWB community.
  • Addressing the new normal: 21st century disaster management in British Columbia (BC Flood and Wildfire Review, 2018)
    This strategic review examines and assesses government response to the flood and wildfire events of the 2017 season. The review incorporates consultations with individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, as well as organizations and other stakeholders to gain a wide cross-section of perspectives from those affected.
  • From the ashes: reimagining fire safety and emergency management in Indigenous communities (Report of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, 2018)
    This report summarizes findings from a study on the response and long-term impacts of the 2017 summer wildfires in First Nation communities. The report also addresses fire safety on reserves, resources, tools, and training needs, and the significant gaps in the current approach to emergency management in First Nation communities. Recommendations coming out of the study are also included and focus on fire safety, prevention, funding, fire protection standards, and data collection.
  • Asking for a Disaster: Being “At Risk” in the Emergency Evacuation of a Northern Canadian Aboriginal Community (Scharbach and Waldram, 2016)
    This article describes the way in which designations of “vulnerability” and “being at risk” result in the prioritized evacuations of ill and disabled community members. This view of risk and how to best “help” the affected community had the inadvertent effect of separating families and socially destabilizing communities through the removal of Elders, during a period in which community members were particularly challenged by being relocated to unfamiliar environs.


This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Omission of a resource does not preclude it from having value.




Last updated Sep 25, 2019