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

WINNIPEG — The leader of a northern Indigenous community in Manitoba says the death of three young siblings in a house fire has shattered 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 said everyone is in shock and suffering.

“They are struggling to cope.”

Mounties said the house went up in flames on Saturday in the community, about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg. RCMP have 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 Nation safety officers had attempted to get into the home through a window but were pushed back by the heat. The intensity of the blaze turned back Mounties as well.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Monias said generally there are 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 the homes on the First Nation, which is also known as Cross Lake, are connected to a water line. The rest, including the home where the fire was, have their water hauled by vehicle.

That means firefighters couldn’t connect to hydrants, he said. They did have fire trucks and water trucks to tackle the blaze.

The chief added that overcrowding and the condition of homes play a significant role.

The community has been denied twice for a federal rapid housing initiative, which was to help address 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 in charge of Indigenous Services, for housing and repairs.

The Liberal government made an election promise last fall of $2 billion for Indigenous housing. More than half the funding is to be available by the upcoming 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 blaze that has resulted in the death of children on a First Nation so far this year.

Grant Meekis, 9; Remi Meekis, 6; and Wilfred Fiddler, 4, died when their home was engulfed in flames on the 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 First Nations people living on reserves were 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people.

A different report by the chief coroner of Ontario last year found that First Nations children under the age of 10 had a fire-related mortality rate 86 times greater than non-First Nations children.

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

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

Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who represents northern First Nations in Manitoba and is from Pimicikamak, said problems with housing are ongoing and must be examined.

He also said support is being provided for community members struggling with the deaths.

“Most community members have a personal connection to those who are impacted, and it is natural we grieve with them.”

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

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