Sparking Fire Safety Awareness Through Indigenous Artistry

Fashion isn’t generally a hot topic at the annual FireSmart Wildfire Resiliency and Training Summit, but this year, one accessory had everyone buzzing. Attendees couldn’t help but admire the intricate, handcrafted beadwork adorning an Ember, the FireSmart Fox pin, captivating attendees with its blend of artistry and fire safety messaging.

Malina Garner is a FireSmart Education and Outreach Coordinator for the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS). In her free time, she enjoys beading beautiful jewellery. When she arrived at the summit in April sporting an original Ember the FireSmart Fox pin, she was peppered with questions and compliments. We sat down to ask Malina about the inspiration behind her jewellery, what motivates her work in wildfire safety, and her best advice this fire season.

One of five Ember the FireSmart Fox pins, handcrafted by Malina. Photo by KJ Miller Media.

One of five Ember the FireSmart Fox pins, handcrafted by Malina.

Before joining FireSmart BC, Malina was involved in fire safety as a volunteer firefighter in her Sun Peaks community. “I was working from home and looking for a way to get involved with my community. “I’ve always been motivated by challenges, and I like seeing how far I can push myself, so it seemed like a good fit. The longer I’m with the hall, the more I appreciate the type of people who volunteer their time and effort in this way. I’ve made some lifelong friends.” 

When Malina was introduced to FireSmart BC at a conference in Kamloops, she was instantly intrigued. “I hadn’t been exposed to such a comprehensive prevention program up to that point outside of the National Fire Protection Association, and to realize one was operating here in BC was incredible. I also had my eye on the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS) after engaging with them at my previous job. When a role came up that combined the two, I jumped at it. I have been with the team for about 7 months and I love the work I do.”

Malina was a volunteer firefighter before joining FNESS as a FireSmart Education and Outreach Coordinator.

Malina is of Denesųłiné and European ancestry and is a member of the Buffalo River Dene Nation in Saskatchewan. To work at an Indigenous-focused organization as an Indigenous woman has felt like coming home. “I have spent most of my life working within non-Indigenous organizations, and there is no substitute for working around people who get your humour and have similar life experiences. The environment that exists within FNESS is something I feel privileged to experience and contribute to.” As an Education and Outreach Coordinator, Malina works on the administrative side of program development as well as in the field hosting FireSmart training sessions for school children in First Nations communities.

Malina with her team at the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS).

While living in Saskatoon in her late teens, Malina’s mother took her to a beading class which sparked her interest. “Up until that point, I had only ever admired beadwork. When I started beading, it was so cathartic that I couldn’t stop. I think I missed handing in a university assignment altogether because I was so focused on finishing that little flower we were asked to make in that class.” Today, that same flower sits on her beading desk at home.

Malina’s first beaded portrait took 500+ hours to complete. Photo by KJ Miller Media.

Malina’s exploration into making jewellery started with earrings. Since then, she’s branched into fine art pieces and recently finished her first portrait—a project that took 500+ hours and over a year to complete. She has experimented with different materials but favours glass Czech seed beads, which come in all cuts, shapes, and sizes. She created the Ember the FireSmart Fox pins to express her gratitude for the FNESS FireSmart team. “I have had such a positive work experience with my colleagues and supervisor, and I wanted to create a tangible way to showcase that appreciation. It’s not every day that you get to work with motivated and truly caring people.”

Malina made five pins in total: one for herself, one for each of her team members, and an extra pin she gifted to Vic Upshaw, FNESS’ Response Support Supervisor. Vic wore the pin on his hat during his panel session which kickstarted the conversation. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and everyone was wondering the same thing: will there be more? “So far, I haven’t planned on making more, and that’s mostly because I have never been a production beader. Some artists are incredibly talented at producing large quantities of beadwork in a short time. I am not one of those people.”

In 2021, after the Embleton Mountain fire, Malina created the “Beauty in the Black” necklace and earrings set. The piece was inspired by the spruce trees she watched burn at night from her back deck. Photo by KJ Miller Media.

Rather than serving as a means to an end, beading is a way for Malina to relax. “I can sit in the same position for hours if I am making art. It helps me process my day and how I feel about things. There is a requirement in Indigenous culture to keep your energy good when you are making things for other people. You must focus your love, gratitude, and goodwill into pieces, otherwise they will not be good gifts. Making art is a gratitude practice for me; it allows me to shift my perception of things back into positive places. If I can’t be in a good headspace, I won’t allow myself to make art.” 

The “Never Lost” set combines traditional styles with modern aesthetics. Malina made the necklace in 2020 during lockdown and the earrings in 2024. Photo by KJ Miller Media.

During difficult times, beading allows Malina to process and express her emotions. “When I make jewellery or art of any kind, I try to put something of myself into it. Whatever emotion or inspiration that I am feeling at the time tends to end up in there. If I’m in a great place emotionally, my pieces are joyful and bright. When I am sad, my pieces are sad. I made a set of earrings and a necklace when I was dealing with deep grief, and I used them in conjunction with a photographer up in Sun Peaks to work through the grief that I couldn’t move through any other way. I suppose that is a way to signal where I’m at to the world, but messages in my art are mostly for me.”

“Float On” is a hairpiece Malina made in 2019 when she was missing Nova Scotia and her life before moving west. Photo by KJ Miller Media.

Malina doesn’t plan on selling her jewellery at the moment, but she assures her FireSmart family that if she changes her mind, they will be the first to know. “I can’t create good work if it doesn’t have special value to me, so if I do end up making pieces to sell down the line, they will all be unique.” In the meantime, she is working on a pair of gauntlet-style gloves and plans to make a full set of moccasins. 

This wildfire season, Malina urges people to FireSmart their homes. “Your community is irreplaceable, so look after your own house first, then do what you can to look after your neighbours. During a disaster, you will rely on the people around you, and after a disaster happens, communities never return to exactly how they were. If you can prevent a disaster, do so.”Learn how to FireSmart your property in a few simple steps with the FireSmart BC Begins at Home Guide.

Insights From the 2024 Wildfire Resiliency and Training Summit

FireSmart BC and our partners recently hosted the 2024 Wildfire Resiliency and Training Summit from April 20th to 24th in Prince George, BC. This important...

Read More Go arrow

When it Comes to Wildfires, We All Have a Part to Play

Wildfire season is already here. This means we all need to be ready to mitigate the impacts of wildfires and respond to them earlier than...

Read More Go arrow