Two people are missing and dozens are homeless after a fire tore through an Iqaluit apartment complex Sunday evening, the latest blow for a city that is already coping with severe housing shortages.
Many of those forced out of the 22 burned-out units are adult students from the nearby Nunavut Arctic College. The students had travelled from remote areas across Nunavut to attend school in the territorial capital with their families – 53 children in all are now homeless.
“People left their homes with nothing more than the clothes on their back – [others]can empathize and relate to losing every single personal belonging one has, especially with that of their children, and students for the most part struggle to make ends meet,” Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said. “It’s very, very devastating, the effects on them.”
The fire at the 300 block of the Creekside Village row houses, known locally as White Row, was reported at 9:48 p.m. Fire crews – some staff, some volunteer – battled the flames throughout the night as the temperature hovered around a bone-chilling -50 with wind chill. Two firefighters suffered frostbite.
There was no word on what caused the fire, which RCMP are treating as suspicious until they determine the cause, Constable Angelique Dignard said.
Two people were missing, but officials said it was too soon to say if they’d been killed. “As of now we only have two people missing. That’s why I’m not confirming anything [about fatalities]” Nunavut coroner Padma Suramala said.
The effects of the fire rippled through the community of about 7,000 people, which is already hard-pressed for housing. Blankets, winter clothing and personal hygiene items were gathered for the people left homeless, and officials were soon overwhelmed with donations.
The unsubsidized White Row homes, now owned by Edmonton-based Nunastar Properties Inc., were among the first built in what is now Iqaluit as outsiders and Inuit began to live in the government centre together – a “significant part” of the city’s history, the mayor said.
Forensic identification officers have been called in to help with the investigation, but that’s considered a standard step. “It’s not specific to finding [human]remains,” Constable Dignard said.
The college whose students are affected was visited by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week.
Some of the evacuees will stay with family, friends or at a hotel this week as officials scramble to see whether housing is available. Both the territorial and provincial governments hold housing for staff, and Ms. Redfern is pushing for some of that to be opened up to the public. “Our goal is to re-house people as quickly as possible,” she said.
Nunavut has always faced a housing crunch, and the fire will only exacerbate it. Housing supplies, which must be shipped in by barge, arrive rarely. A fire last year at another apartment complex in Iqaluit destroyed 29 units.
“The city does its part by developing new lots and offering those for development every year. We just can’t keep up with demand,” Ms. Redfern said. “And of course losing 22 units as of today and 29 units as of one large fire last year is a significant blow to our community.”