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Canada For KI First Nation, impact of deadly fire reverberates through tight-knit community

Top row, from left: Geraldine (mother), Angel (age 12), Karl (age nine), Thyra (surviving, age 19). Bottom row, from left: Hailey (age seven), Shyra (age six).

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Five small crosses now stand in the rubble of a house fire that killed a mother and four children on a First Nation reserve in northwestern Ontario last month − a vivid reminder of a tragedy that illustrated how vulnerable remote Indigenous communities are to such blazes.

The deaths continue to haunt Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, located 600-kilometres north of Thunder Bay and better known by its initials, KI, in ways that highlight the challenges and strengths of many isolated reserves.

The community, which does not have a working fire truck or finished fire hall, remains susceptible to these types of disasters. Meanwhile, it is now struggling to cope with immense grief.

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“Every time I stopped to think, it just hit me: We lost five people,” said Sam McKay, the band’s crisis communications liaison.

In a recent interview, Mr. McKay and Chief Donny Morris spoke at length about the aftermath of the May 2 fire that claimed the lives of Geraldine Chapman, 47, her six-year-old biological daughter Shyra Chapman, and her three foster children Angel McKay, 12; Karl Cutfeet, 9; and Hailey Chapman, 7. The band declared a state of emergency on May 7 in response to the mental-health toll of the tragedy.

Because of the tight-knit nature of the community, and the disparate origins of Ms. Chapman’s children, roughly a quarter of the band’s population of about 1,500 has family connections to the deaths, Mr. Morris estimated.

When he arrived at the scene of the fire at 5:30 that fateful morning, Mr. Morris said that he recognized some of the small group that had already assembled: Two of the men were biological fathers of children inside the house.

The Chapman family came together through a process of customary adoption or “gifting” that allows children to remain in the community.

“If I have too many kids and I can’t really function, and I know of an individual who I think would do the job − give the care and love to this child − it’s that process,” Mr. Morris said.

Three separate families entrusted Ms. Chapman with their children − a testament to the esteem in which she was held, Mr. Morris believes. “What did people see in her?” he said. “Not many people would do that: provide the love, provide the care, provide the shelter … It would have to take a special person to do that. That’s all I can say.”

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A single mother, Ms. Chapman helped provide for her children by running a small convenience store that was open in the evening after the main shops closed, selling coffee, cupcakes and other snacks, the chief recalled.

“As a [chief] all these years, she never came by the office to request assistance,” he said.

In such an intimately connected place, the fire has brought immense grief, not least for the family’s lone surviving daughter, 19-year-old Thyra Chapman, who was away at the time of the fire.

Such intimacy also brought the risk of gossip about the cause of the fire, Mr. Morris says. That is why he shut off the community’s internet connection for a day immediately after the blaze − “so there would be no speculation.”

In 2007, a report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. found that the country’s First Nations population had 10 times the rate of death by fire as the rest of the country. The study said that poorly built housing, a shortage of smoke alarms, arson and wood stoves were common risk factors.

The Ontario Provincial Police and Office of the Fire Marshal are still investigating the cause of the KI blaze. A postmortem examination determined that the cause of death for all five deceased was smoke inhalation.

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In the meantime, the community has leaned into its strong Christian faith, according to its leaders. “What carried me through was all the prayers that were given to each and every one of us,” Mr. McKay said. “Otherwise, I would have completely collapsed and not been able to function.”

“We believe that those who perished in a horrible way get to see their Lord,” Mr. Morris said.

KI is home to several Christian denominations, including two Anglican churches across the bay from one another. The reserve once contained a Pentecostal church but it, too, burned down, Mr. Morris said.

Material help has also arrived from local and regional organizations and neighbouring communities. “They poured in their resources, their funding, their groceries, traditional food,” Mr. Morris said. “It was overwhelming.”

Still, the chief is finding that nothing can fully salve the pain of leading a community through the sudden death of a young family. The tragedy has cast a shadow over otherwise joyful events. A recent bonfire with his grandchildren brought dark associations.

“Seeing my five grandkids … and the big flame: It triggered something in my wife and myself,” Mr. Morris said.

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For his part, Mr. McKay has been kept up at night by the deaths. He had a dream recently of standing in a room full of coffins.

“I felt, when I woke up, the loss,” he said. “I had to cry.”

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