Ontario First Nations chief calls for inquest after fatal house fire

Ontario First Nations chief calls for inquest after fatal house fire

By Julien Gignac, The Globe and Mail
Published: March 31, 2016
Link to article: Ontario First Nations chief calls for inquest after fatal house fire

Ontario’s regional chief says an inquest should be called into the high mortality rates in First Nations communities in the province’s remote north, following a deadly house fire that killed nine members of the same family.

“Nine lives lost is really good reason to call an inquest … and focus on the issue of house fires,” Isadore Day of the Chiefs of Ontario said on Thursday. “We can’t let these people die in vain.”

Two days earlier, six adults and three children no older than five were killed in a blaze in a home in the community of Pikangikum, in Northwestern Ontario near the Manitoba border.

“When homes go up in flames in these communities, the issue of poverty is very close behind,” Mr. Day said. “Let’s face it, this fire is a health issue. We need to ask were there standards, regulations and protocols with respect to prevention of house fires and loss of life? Obviously there wasn’t.”

The community of about 3,000 is reeling from the tragedy. A spokesperson from the band office said family and friends have been pouring into Pikangikum from across the country to mourn and offer support. Funeral and memorial arrangements are not likely to be made until next week.

Ontario’s deputy chief coroner, James Sproule, is in Pikangikum investigating the fatal fire, accompanied by Michael Wilson, the regional supervising coroner for Northwestern Ontario. An Ontario Provincial Police forensic unit and the Ontario Fire Marshal are also stationed in the community to determine the cause of the blaze.

“Today we’re going to begin a physical and forensic examination of the scene,” OPP spokeswoman Diana Cole said, “and over the next several days, the investigation is going to entail a very detailed and systematic process.” She added that the investigation could take a week or more.

The response of the coroners in this case is a far cry from what occurred in recent years. No investigating coroner showed up when a four-year-old girl died of strep throat in Pikangikum in January, 2014. And no coroner immediately arrived in the community of Sandy Lake, north of Thunder Bay, when five-year-old Brody Meekis died four months later of the same curable disease.

Previous inquests into similar tragedies have highlighted the challenges facing remote Northern reserves such as Pikangikum. Homes are dilapidated, not built to comply with any modern code and often don’t have running water, let alone a smoke detector. There are often several generations of families sharing a tiny bungalow, heightening the potential toll fires can take when they break out.

“Most homes are simply a death trap,” Mr. Day said.

Many fires spread quickly and communities are often woefully unprepared. Many don’t have fire trucks and rely on water trucks with no more pressure than a garden hose. There are often not enough trained volunteers to operate it properly, inquests and internal government reports have found.

Mr. Day said more than 90 per cent of homes don’t have running water in Pikangikum.

“Is there going to be a fire hydrant outside? No, there isn’t.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Thursday the deaths underscore the need to improve living conditions on reserves.

“We are with them,” she said. “My job always is to do everything in our power to prevent the preventable.”

An internal federal government report examining insurance coverage for First Nations found almost half across Canada had “little to no fire protection” and relied too heavily on poorly trained volunteer firefighters.

The 2011 report, obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation, found fire rates for First Nations were 2.4 times higher than for the rest of Canada. First Nations residents were also 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than someone living off reserve.

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