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2 teens arrested after fire engulfs school in Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario

A fire at the school in Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario on Thursday morning has caused extensive damage. (Submitted by Chris Papah  - image credit)
A fire at the school in Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario on Thursday morning has caused extensive damage. (Submitted by Chris Papah - image credit)

Two youths have been arrested after an early-morning fire Thursday engulfed the John C. Yesno Education Centre in Eabametoong First Nation

The fire on the Ojibway First Nation in northwestern Ontario appears to have been set on purpose and is "consistent" with arson, according to statements from Nishnawbe Aski Nation Police Service and community leadership.

Eabametoong is a fly-in community of 1,600 people approximately 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

Police were called shortly after 7 a.m. about a fire at the building.

They said arson charges against the suspects, ages 17 and 14, are pending. The two can't be named under provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

No injuries have been reported.

'Major disruption to our school year'

"We are extremely devastated by the fire that took place this morning in our community as the result of arson. This will result in a major disruption to our school year," said a statement from Chief Solomon Atlookan and his council.

"This will deprive approximately 299 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 9 of an education."

The community is working with the provincial and federal governments, the Eabametoong Education Authority, Matawa Education Authority and others to address the short-, medium- and long-term needs, which will include interim education plans and a new school.

Eabametoong First Nation Chief Solomon Atlookan says there is still more work that needs to be done to the community's water treatment plant's infrastructure despite it having resumed operation.
Eabametoong First Nation Chief Solomon Atlookan says there is still more work that needs to be done to the community's water treatment plant's infrastructure despite it having resumed operation.

Eabametoong First Nation Chief Solomon Atlookan says the community is extremely devastated by Thursday's fire. (Heather Waldron/CBC)

"We will do our best to ensure that students' studies are not impacted to any large extent, including setting up a virtual education system." Atlookan said.

CBC News has phoned the Eabametoong band office, but has not been able to reach anyone due to intermittent cellphone disconnection Thursday.

Matawa First Nations Management had secured federal funding for two fire trucks, but because the winter road system is not yet open, the community had to fight Thursday's fire with just the resources available in the community.

Among those reacting to the fire was Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP representing the riding of Kiiwetinoong, who said on X, formerly Twitter, that he hoped everyone was safe.

Greg Rickford, Ontario's Indigenous affairs minister, pledged the province's full support to help the community.

"Our primary focus right now is trying to identify whatever resources they may need in the community to deal with and extinguish the fire," Rickford said.

He listed a few specific areas where the province could support Eabametoong:

  • Provide any additional resources or personnel from the province to keep the area safe.

  • Support any investigations into the cause of the fire.

  • Help co-ordinate support for children who have lost their school.

Rickford said he has deep ties to Eabametoong and the people living there, and knows the important role the school plays in the community.

"It's safe to say there's a personal connection, but our responsibility is of course to support the community regardless," he said. "That doesn't impact my response either way other than to give them our full support in my capacity as the minister of Indigenous affairs."

This is the second devastating fire that has had a major impact on a critical piece of the community's infrastructure in the past 12 months. In July, a fire at the water treatment plant forced a community evacuation, which lasted about three weeks. That fire was also determined to be arson.