House fire that killed young siblings shows need for housing assistance: chief

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WINNIPEG — The leader of an Indigenous community in northern Manitoba says the death of three young siblings in a house fire has broken the family and shows the need for adequate housing on the reserve.

“It’s devastating,” Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias said Monday.

Monias said the children who died were two, 13 and 17 years old. The chief knows the family well and says everyone is in shock and pain.

“They are struggling to cope.”

Mounties said the home caught fire Saturday in the community, about 530 kilometers north of Winnipeg. RCMP said four other people in the house – a 36-year-old man, a 36-year-old woman, a 20-year-old woman and a four-year-old girl – were able to escape through a window.

RCMP said First Nations security guards tried to enter the house through a window, but were pushed back by the heat. The intensity of the fire also made the gendarmes retreat.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Monias said that in general there were many possible reasons behind the fire, including faulty wiring or wood stoves. There are also issues with smoke detectors in homes and access to fire extinguishers, he said.

“It’s not a simple answer.”

Only half of the homes in the First Nation, also known as Cross Lake, are connected to a water pipe. The others, including the house where the fire broke out, have their water transported by vehicle.

That means firefighters couldn’t connect to fire hydrants, he said. They had fire engines and tank trucks to fight the fire.

The chief added that overcrowding and the condition of the houses play an important role.

The community has twice been turned down for a federal rapid housing initiative, which was meant to help meet the urgent needs of vulnerable people during the pandemic, Monias said.

Last year, the community made a request to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Marc Miller, who was then responsible for Indigenous Services, for housing and repairs.

Last fall the Liberal government made a $2 billion election promise for aboriginal housing. More than half of the financing must be available by the next summer construction period.

Monias said he hopes this time he will be able to secure more housing for his community to help prevent future deaths.

“It’s just not enough.”

The Pimicikamak fire is the third fatal fire that has resulted in the death of children in a First Nation so far this year.

Grant Meekis, 9; Rémi Meekis, 6 years old; and Wilfred Fiddler, 4, died when their home was engulfed in flames on Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario in January.

Three people, including a six-year-old boy, from the Siksika Nation in Alberta were killed in a fire earlier this month.

A Statistics Canada study found that First Nations people living on reserves were 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people.

Another report from Ontario’s Chief Coroner last year found that First Nations children under the age of 10 had a fire-related death rate 86 times higher than non-Indigenous children.

A 2014 investigation into the deaths of three children and a grandfather in house fires on remote reserves in northern Manitoba found that poor housing infrastructure contributed to the fatal fires.

The office of Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said $33.8 million a year, on average, over the past five years for on-reserve fire services. In a recent email, Hajdu’s office said more needed to be done.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who represents First Nations in northern Manitoba and is originally from Pimicikamak, said housing issues are ongoing and need to be addressed.

He also said support was being provided for community members dealing with the deaths.

“Most members of the community have a personal connection to those affected, and it’s only natural that we grieve with them.”

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said she will be arranging a visit to Pimicikamak later this week.

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