Family of 9 die in house fire; brings attention to northern public health crisis

PIKANGIKUM — A house fire on Pikangikum First Nation has killed six adults and three children.

The three bedroom house was reported to be in flames after 11 p.m. on Tuesday.

All nine victims were related. Police have identified the deceased as Dean and Annette Strang, their son Gilbert Strang and his partner, their daughter Faith Strang and her partner and their three children.

Niishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler issued a statement saying this tragedy is just one side of the public health crisis going on in their territory.

“We are shocked by this tragedy and our prayers are with the victims, their families and the entire community as they struggle to come to grips with this devastating loss,” said Fiddler. “The community is still in shock, but we have assured Chief and Council that we will do everything possible to ensure that all required services and supports are made available.”

Pikangikum is one of several northern ontario reserve communities that does not have firefighting services.

This, Fiddler says, combined with overcrowding in homes on remote northern reserves has proven tragic all too often.

A federal study on fire safety on reserves in 2010 found that people living on First Nation reserves are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than people in the rest of Canada.

The chronic lack of firefighting services and substandard housing in NAN First Nations is a deadly combination that has claimed far too many lives. There are no firefighting services in Pikangikum and 95 per cent of homes do not even have running water.

Federal and Provincial health ministers met with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, promising to do what needs to be done to end the health crisis across NAN territory.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins met with NAN leadership and Chiefs of Ontario leaders along with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennet.

The meeting came after two public health crisis situations in NAN territory got national attention across mainstream and social media — highlighting a lack of health services in the northern communities.

The Health ministers vowed to implement measures to resolve the public health state of emergency in the northern reserve communities. Both Ministers said the inequities experienced by First Nations people in the north should not exist in a country as wealthy as Canada.

In a written statement Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said, “This week’s tragic and fatal fire in Pikangikum, which claimed three generations of one family, along with the ongoing skin rashes suffered by children in Kashechewan, only serve to underscore the poor health determinants — from housing to water — that have plagued our peoples for decades. While more nurses, doctors and suicide crisis workers are part of the immediate solution, the long term goal — as voiced by Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon at yesterday’s meeting — is to build happy, healthy communities for his children and grandchildren.”

A public health state of emergency was declared by NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler in February of this year for the northern communities.

In a joint statement on the crisis, Health Ministers Philpott and Hoskins said the federal budget allowed $8.4 billion in funding, of which NAN will see dollars for health infrastructure to resolve the critical situation across their territory.

The province has committed to adding additional physician days, nurse practitioners and additional mental health support workers in NAN territory.

The ministers said Ontario will also implement the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority Wellness model, to examine what help is needed in NAN.

The Ministers wrote, “We directed our officials to begin working with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation leadership to assemble a joint action table to begin work immediately on the issues raised in our meetings . The precise membership and terms of reference for this table are yet to be established with our First Nations partners. We expect this group to begin work within the next two weeks.”

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