A house fire in a remote northern Ontario Cree community has left two people dead and three others injured, sparking calls for accountability and a national Indigenous fire strategy.
The tragic incident
The fire broke out on Thursday evening on Weenusk First Nation, in Peawanuck, Ont., a fly-in community located 30 kilometres from the southern coast of Hudson Bay. According to the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing and no details have been released on the identities of the victims. However, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), an organization representing 49 First Nations, confirmed that two adults died in the blaze and three other people managed to escape and are being treated for their injuries.
This tragedy highlights the ever-present danger of fire, especially in remote First Nations, which are at unnecessary risk due to the chronic lack of firefighting, fire prevention, and emergency services, said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler in a statement. We have lost far too many members to house fires and other tragedies that may have been preventable had the proper resources been available. Our leaders are frustrated that these tragedies continue to happen despite our best efforts to secure the resources they so desperately need.
A history of fire-related deaths
This is not the first time that Weenusk First Nation has experienced a fatal house fire. Almost a year ago, a 10-year-old girl perished in a similar incident in the same community. At the time, the deputy grand chief of NAN had said that the community did not have access to fire services or basic firefighting equipment such as a fire truck. Although the truck has been delivered via ice roads that lead to the First Nation, NAN has said it is still not operational because there isn’t a place to store and maintain it.
Unfortunately, Weenusk First Nation is not an isolated case. Recent reports by Ontario’s chief coroner and the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council have found that First Nation children under 10 have a fire-related mortality rate 86 times greater than non-First Nation children and Indigenous people living on-reserve are five times more likely to die in a fire. These alarming statistics have been attributed to factors such as overcrowded and substandard housing, lack of smoke alarms, inadequate fire codes and inspections, and insufficient funding and training for fire services.
The need for a national strategy
In light of these recurring tragedies, many Indigenous leaders and advocates have called for a national strategy to address the fire safety crisis in First Nations communities. In 2016, the federal government announced a $255 million investment over five years to improve fire protection on reserves, but critics have said that the funding is insufficient and not distributed equitably. Moreover, there is no clear accountability mechanism or national standard for fire safety on reserves, leaving many First Nations in a vulnerable position.
One of the organizations that has been pushing for a national Indigenous fire strategy is the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council, a non-profit group that provides fire safety education, training, and support to Indigenous communities across Canada. The council has developed a comprehensive framework that covers fire prevention, protection, suppression, and investigation, as well as governance, funding, and data collection. The council has also partnered with various stakeholders, such as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Assembly of First Nations, and Indigenous Services Canada, to advance the implementation of the strategy.
The council’s executive director, Blaine Wiggins, said that the goal of the strategy is to empower Indigenous communities to take ownership of their fire safety and to reduce the disparities and risks that they face. We want to see a day when no one dies in a fire in an Indigenous community, he said. We want to see a day when Indigenous people have the same level of fire safety as any other Canadian.