Skip to main content

An early-morning house fire has killed a woman and four of her children on a Northern Ontario First Nation and thrown a spotlight on the vulnerability of remote reserves that often suffer from inadequate housing and scarce firefighting resources.

Donny Morris, chief of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, said the community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay is feeling heartbroken and helpless after the home went up in flames at about 5 a.m. on Thursday. He said the reserve does not have a working fire truck or a fire hall.

The identities and ages of the victims have not been confirmed, but the chief said four were 12 or younger.

“We’re taking it very hard,” Mr. Morris said. “It has a ripple effect throughout the community. Everyone is pretty-well connected.”

Sam McKay, crisis communications liaison for the band, spoke through tears as he described the tragedy’s emotional impact on his family. “It kind of hits me hard personally, because I have an eight-year-old granddaughter and she was good friends with one of the girls,” he said. “She used to go over there almost every day after school.”

Ontario’s chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, said a large team of investigators will head to the fly-in community of about 1,500, better known by its initials KI, on Friday to begin determining what happened and why. But for now, official details are scarce.

As authorities converge on the scene, and the community mourns, KI is also contending with a newfound sense of vulnerability in the face of fire that is shared by scores of First Nations across the country.

In 2016, a remote reserve in Northwestern Ontario suffered a similar tragedy when a house fire killed nine people, including three children, in Pikangikum First Nation.

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization representing 49 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, said the region’s struggles with housing and infrastructure make such tragedies more likely.

“We have had wake-up calls in the past, and it just calls on all of us to redouble our efforts to prevent further loss of life,” he said.

The trend is national. The federal government used to track on-reserve fire deaths based on voluntary reporting from the First Nations, but stopped in 2010. A 2007 study by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. found that the country’s First Nations population had 10 times the incidence of death by fire as the rest of the country.

The study pointed to poorly built housing, a shortage of smoke alarms, arson and the use of wood stoves as risk factors. Many of these conditions are present in KI.

Sioux Lookout protest sparked by Indigenous teen’s arrest seeks to draw mistreatment of First Nations to the fore

How the fight over Thunder Bay’s century-old James Street bridge points way to spanning a racial divide

The Globe in Thunder Bay: Why we’re here

Mr. Morris also noted that the community does not adhere to a particular fire-safety standard, a common condition on First Nations reserves, where national and provincial fire codes cannot be enforced.

KI is in the process of building a fire hall, which should be completed in the summer, Mr. Morris said.

The vehicle the community owns for fighting fires is not equipped to drive in its brutal winter weather or on its rough roads, he said. (A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said the department provides about $19,000 a year for operation and maintenance of the truck.) ​

“The way I feel right now – I don’t know how I could explain: being helpless in that area of fire prevention, fire equipment, fire team. All of these things that we lack,” the chief said. “We have nothing.”

Richard Kent, vice-president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, said that inadequate fire engines are a common problem on reserves. “Just because they have a fire truck on paper doesn’t mean it’s up and running still. … It might be up on blocks, or its tires are out,” he said. “There’s not a lot of money that’s given for maintenance.”

Even worse than derelict equipment is the lack of information about which First Nations communities are at a high risk of fire, Mr. Kent said. Canada lacks an accessible database of fire risks in First Nations communities based on federal inspections, he said, making it hard to know what is driving the high incidence of fire on reserves.

“We’re not gathering the information that needs to be gathered,” Mr. Kent said. “At least those statistics showed us, ‘Here is where the infractions are.’ ”

Without statistics showing which communities are at risk and why, fires are more likely to be fought than prevented, the veteran firefighter argued. “If the fire trucks roll, we’ve already lost the battle.”

Indigenous Services Canada notes in an online explainer that it provides money for firefighting as part of First Nations’ general capital funding, but that communities “may choose to use fire protection funding on other priorities.”

In a statement, Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said: “My heart is with the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug today as friends and family grieve the tragic loss of five in a house fire. Indigenous Services officials are working with partners to provide assistance to the community as needed.”