A father, three young children and a baby are believed to have died in a fire that destroyed their home and ripped apart this First Nation community amid efforts Thursday to recover and identify the charred remains of the victims.
Shocked community leaders and residents struggled to come to terms with the devastating loss that occurred about 12 hours after a blaze in Port Colborne, Ont., also claimed the lives of four family members.
"We've only started to understand what has happened," Randall Phillips, chief of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, said Thursday. "Our community is suffering. There's not a person in this community that doesn't know one of the victims or the victims' family."
Relatives of the dead were in shock, and heart-broken, Phillips said, adding that a forensic anthropologist had only managed to identify the remains of the adult and one of the children.
A man who said he was a brother of the deceased father shooed photographers from the blackened frame of the house on the edge of the town as firefighters and investigators worked in the wreckage of the home.
"At least you can wait until they get the baby out," the man said, before walking away.
Firefighters arriving on the scene in frigid temperatures at about 11 a.m. Wednesday could do little more than douse the flames, which took about two hours. The cause remained under investigation.
Phillips, who said the two-storey home was old and "just basically kindling," lashed out at the federal government for rejecting the community's plea for funding to upgrade 50 of its houses, saying First Nations' housing is in crisis.
"That might have been one of the houses that was on that list but we were denied that funding," Phillips said, his voice rising in anger. "This is a perfect example in terms of us not being able to refurbish or fix houses that are in need of this kind of repair."
The government explained the denial on the basis that housing money was more needed in the North and "not a single dollar" came down south, the chief said.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said she was "deeply saddened" by the loss of life in the community.
"Our hearts go out to the community during this difficult time," she said. "I have reached out to the Chief to offer our support. We remain steadfast in our commitment to work with First Nations to ensure the safety of their communities."
The Oneida Nation of the Thames has about 6,000 registered members, with 3,700 living in the community 25 kilometres southwest of London, Ont.
Phillips said the names of the victims would only be released after the Office of the Fire Marshal had completed its investigation. However, the N'Amerind Friendship Centre in nearby London identified the Doxtator Antone family as being in need.
"They lost everything in a house fire including family members," the centre said in a call for donations of clothing, boots and coats.
The centre was looking specifically for donations for three boys — aged six, eight and nine — a 12-year-old girl, and the children's mother who one relative said were away from home when the fire began.
"We're just trying to pull our community together, to be there for them, for the family, at this time of year especially," said Adrienna Antone, who isn't related but works at the centre and was helping collect donations.
"The kids that are remaining, we would like to assist them in that. That's why we put out the call for donations."
The fire occurred hours after another tragic blaze in Port Colborne, Ont., destroyed a home and killed four family members identified as a 37-year-old mother and her two children, aged 15 and 2, and the woman's 83-year-old grandmother.
Oneida resident Perry Elijah, 58, described the father and mother in the First Nations town as a "young couple" who were just starting out.
"You really don't want to see nothing like this happen. Other communities, the same thing. Other communities go through it, like Port Colborne, what happened there. But you don't expect it here but it did," Elijah said.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen. Sad. I don't feel good. I don't even know how I'll celebrate Christmas this year."
A GoFundMe page set up for the family also put out a call for money to help the family.
"My sister's house caught fire yesterday morning," a message on the campaign page said. "She lost her partner and four of her eight children."
Acting chief Mark Rennison of the nearby Middlesex Centre Fire Services, said some of the local firefighters who responded knew the family.
"It was a tough, tough scene," Rennison said.
In Ottawa, the head of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegard, expressed his condolences.
"It just speaks to the need for proper services for fire, in terms of fire trucks and training and capacity so they can deal with that and have an emergency plan in place across all First Nations," Bellegard said.
"More needs to be done federally, provincially and First Nations wise to get that plan in place for that."
Earlier this year, a fire on the remote Pikangikum First Nation in northern Ontario killed nine people, including a five-month-old baby. In that case, Ontario's Regional Chief Isadore Day blamed third-world living conditions for the tragedy.
– With files from Diana Mehta and Liam Casey in Toronto