A fire truck, not equipped for wintry roads. A water delivery truck that could make it over the tough terrain, but was empty overnight to avoid freezing. A fire hall still under construction.
The fire-safety infrastructure that a First Nation community in Northern Ontario had in place – or was on the brink of introducing – fell tragically short on Thursday, as an early morning blaze tore through a famiy home, killing five members of a family.
About two months ago, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, also referred to by its initials KI, had also received a commitment of $57,000 from the federal government to replace all of its fire hydrants, Chief Donny Morris said. The work in his remote community, located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, will begin as soon as the ground thaws.
Even so, there was no hydrant near the old home of a woman and four of her children, who all died in the fire. The identities of the victims are slated to be released by the band on the weekend. A spokesperson for the band, Sam McKay, said three of the victims – aged 7, 9 and 12 – were adopted. The woman’s biological child, aged 6, also died. Her eldest biological child was not home at the time.
Mr. McKay said he is taking the rare step of pointing out that some of the children were adopted to underscore how the tragedy has reverberated through the community, where the adopted children all have local families. Funeral arrangements in the fly-in community of 1,500 are underway.
KI is part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), an organization that represents about 49 First Nation communities and 45,000 members, both on and off reserves. Alvin Fiddler, NAN’s grand chief, said the organization recently wrapped up its three-year fire safety campaign and is developing a proposal for Indigenous Services Canada to continue funding the program.
The campaign launched in May, 2016, two months after a house fire killed nine family members in Pikangikum First Nation, a remote reserve in Northwestern Ontario. One of the campaign’s base goals was to ensure residents had access to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, but “while we can purchase these devices for every home, I think where the gap is right now is ensuring that there’s proper installation,” Mr. Fiddler said, adding NAN needed funding for the next phase of their campaign.
The apparent lack of resources from the federal government to fully execute this plan is “the story of the dysfunction of the department,” said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, calling for an end to the “hamster wheels of short-term funding and projects.”
“We need fire protection to be a line item, just like it would be in municipal funding,” he said.
Between 2008 and 2017, Indigenous Services Canada has provided an annual average of $28.9-million for fire protection, including firefighter training, operations and maintenance, and capital investments to build fire halls and purchase equipment for Indigenous communities across Canada, spokeswoman Rola Tfaili said in a statement.
Funding varies between communities based on factors such as the number of buildings on a reserve and remoteness. The department is also working to create an Indigenous Fire Marshal’s Office that may mandate fire service inspection and oversight, Ms. Tfaili said. The government committed two years ago that it would create such an office.
In KI, the fire hall project has been about three years in the making, Mr. Morris said, with all fire-safety funding from the government going toward its construction and operations so far. The building will help to keep the community’s fire truck warm during the winter and have an office space for volunteers or staff.
Currently, fire emergency calls are routed to about six public works staff members who only work during the day and evenings. At night, the water truck is emptied to avoid freezing, Mr. Morris said.
Mr. Angus, who has attended the funerals of fire death victims on norther reserves, said the “horrific gaps” that exist in Northern communities make ultimately preventable situations fatal.
“There isn’t anything more traumatic for a community than a family dying in a fire and the neighbours hearing the kids calling out,” he said, “and you not being able to help because you don’t have the resources.”