First Nations communities in Cape Breton start their own alert system


BLAMING THE RCMP WASN’T GOING TO HELP. So the Indigenous community in Cape Breton didn’t do it. Instead they relied on themselves to imagine and then create their own community emergency alert system—a first for Indigenous people in Canada.

Overall public confidence in the existing emergency alert system in Nova Scotia has been shaky ever since the mass murder of 22 people in Portapique  in April. Police did not issue an alert during a manhunt for the killer.

Indigenous concerns about the reliability of the system increased in early August when the RCMP waited a week to issue an emergency alert about a missing 14-year-old girl from the We’koqma’q First Nation.

Perfect timing before the fact

The September 1 rollout of the Mi’kmaq alert system seemed like perfect timing. But it was in the works before the mass murders and abduction. The five Indigenous communities on Cape Breton have long-standing concerns about possible racial bias in the system.

“I’ve seen things happen in our communities versus mainstream society,” said Jeff Ward, a Membertou First Nation community leader. “Helicopters were sent, and ground search and rescue were there right away. Where for us, a different story was told.”

Jennifer Jesty, emergency management co-ordinator with the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, said chiefs will be able to send alerts by text, phone and email in Mi’kmaq and English to community members in Eskasoni, Membertou, Potlotek, Wagmatcook and We’koqma’q.

Jesty said giving chiefs decision-making power about alerts will save time and potentially save lives during critical situations such as severe weather, wildfires and missing person searches.

“If something does happen at two o’clock in the morning, [the chief is] likely going to be the one to get the phone call,” she said. “Well, they can just immediately go on their phone and set up the alert right away.”

Community input and involvement

Summer students went door-to-door presenting the system to elders before posters and social media spread the word to the wider community. People can sign up by downloading the app, scanning a QR code or filling out an old-fashioned paper form.

Jesty said the fact the messages will be available in the Mi’kmaq language will help ensure older community members understand the alerts.

Chiefs can dictate their messages in both languages and send them from a phone or computer. Jesty has prepared guidelines, sample messages and a pre-recorded notice that will let recipients on the phone know an emergency alert from their chief will follow.

Jesty said she considered working with the province’s alert system, but concluded the process to issue messages was too bureaucratic.

She said the Mi’kmaq system will save time and remove the step of going through the RCMP when urgent information needs to get out to the community.

“This decision can be made amongst the community itself and community leaders,” she said.

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