Last week, on his ninth birthday, Grant Meekis – along with his six-year-old sister Remi Meekis and four-year-old brother Wilfred Fiddler – died in a house fire in Sandy Lake First Nation.
Three of their siblings, as well as their parents, Cassandra and Delaney Meekis, survived.
We do not know exactly what happened in Sandy Lake. The fire is still under investigation. But what is clear, says Sandy Lake Chief Delores Kakegamic, is that a lack of proper water lines and basic community infrastructure once again hampered rescue efforts. The brave souls who responded to the fire did so without access to a working fire hydrant. Only one water truck was operational and able to feed the fire truck. None of the firefighters had oxygen masks, and so they had to be treated afterward for inhaling smoke.
This same unbelievably tragic and preventable occurrence happens over and over in remote communities. In 2016, a house fire in Pikangikum killed nine people; the youngest, Amber Strang, was just five months old. In 2019, a fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug claimed the lives of a family of five.
Let this sobering truth sink in: First Nations children under the age of 10 are 86 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous children, according to the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Table on Understanding Fire Deaths in First Nations, which released a damning report last year after studying 56 fire deaths in 29 fires across 20 First Nations over the course of 10 years.
How many times must we read about government reports, parliamentary committee hearings or new programs that are needed to fund basic fire safety and infrastructure in First Nations communities? How many times must the Assembly of First Nations and territorial political organizations yell from the rooftops about the need to adequately fund fire safety?
Yes, Indigenous Services Canada provides core annual funding for fire services that are managed by First Nations chiefs and councils. Of course, a regionally based formula assesses who gets what according to factors such as how many buildings there are in the community and how many folks live there. Between 2008 and 2017, the OCC report notes, ISC provided $29-million a year for fire protection services on reserves. But there are 634 First Nations in this country. You do the math and tell me if that is enough to hire fire chiefs and fund fire houses, as well as invest in infrastructure and working fire hydrants.
There have been so many promises made about improvements, typically made after children needlessly die. And yet, every single winter, the deaths continue.
At its heart, it is important to see these fire deaths through the lens of how Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has led to systemic issues that put Indigenous communities at a higher risk of experiencing house fires and fire fatalities. Those aren’t my words – those come directly from the chief coroner’s report.
Historic wrongs still kill, today. The Indian Act and sneaky, unfulfilled treaties made sure Indigenous peoples were shoved out of settlers’ way, and when it came to rights, they assured that there would be no equality or equity. Our peoples were treated as a nuisance, as less-than. That has not changed: Homes on reserves are often built with cheap, flammable material.
But most urgently, First Nations communities do not fall under provincial or national fire and building safety code standards.
The Ontario Fire Code has a clause in it that calls for complete fire drills to be carried out in schools – three times in the fall, spring and summer, or when the school is in session. However, with no fully funded fire chiefs in many communities – only 19 of Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s 49 communities have such a position filled – who runs the drills? Who checks to make sure everything is done safely and correctly? Who ensures the fire alarms work?
Why do provincial and Canadian standards not apply to our children?
Fire chiefs can oversee community fire programs, which would include education around prevention, making a residential fire-alarm plan, and how to clean woodstove chimneys, for instance. Communities must be provided the proper resources to conduct these basic fire protection services.
After Amber Strang died, the Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign was launched in an effort to teach about fire safety. But how many more Ambers must die before basic standards are applied?
We can only hope that three more tragic deaths, to start the new year, should be enough to end the holdup.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.