ONEIDA – Wednesday’s deadly house fire here was a “perfect example” of the fallout of a housing crisis and lack of federal housing support in area First Nations communities, its chief says.
“We have overcrowding here. We have lack of housing here,” Chief Randall Phillips, of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, said Thursday.
A father and four young boys — the bodies of an adult and a child were recovered, but the three others were presumed dead in the rubble — died in the fire that reduced the older house to a charred shell.
The house was made of wood and likely was in need of refurbishing, Phillips said.
Social media posts suggest as many as five other people — a mother and four children 12 years old and younger — also lived in the house, but that could not be immediately confirmed.
“They have lost everything,” Phillips said of the remaining family members.
Phillips said Oneida applied for money to upgrade 50 homes on the settlement, although he didn’t know if the house destroyed by the fire was one of them.
That application, he said, was unilaterally denied and all the money went to Northern Canadian communities.
“Not a single dollar of that came south,” he said.
The federal Liberal government promised in its recent budget to spend an additional $416.6 million during the next two years to improve reserve housing, reduce overcrowding and increase health and safety. That’s in addition to about $146 million already provided annually to First Nations to support a range of housing needs, the federal government said.
Providing and managing housing on reserves is the responsibility of First Nations, while the federal government provides funding to First Nations for safe and affordable reserve housing — money that can be spent building, servicing, maintaining, renovating and insuring homes.
Officials with the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and MP Carolyn Bennett, the minister responsible for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Phillips said the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the blaze, and he’s waiting for answers.
But he noted there’s been a housing crisis at the settlement for decades. “The particular property that was engulfed was an older property and it was just basically kindling.”
Phillips said while he continues to lobby both the federal and provincial governments for safe homes, “this is a perfect example of us not being able to refurbish or fix houses that are in need of this kind of repair.”
Oneida, he said, is one of the largest First Nations communities in Ontario. Housing “is not just an up-north issue. We have over-crowding here. We have a lack of housing here. We have a lack of those kinds of support.”
The funding formula, he said, fails to address the large population, putting a strain on municipal services, such as a the fire department.
Phillips said Oneida will continue to press the federal and provincial governments to hold up their agreements on housing. But as pressing as that lobbying is, he said there’s an even more urgent need now — finding the remaining members of the family, honouring their lives and supporting the survivors.