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Calls for accountability, national Indigenous fire strategy after fatal house fire in Peawanuck

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says the chronic lack of fire-firefighting, fire prevention, and emergency services in First Nations communities contribute to fatal fires.  (Marc Doucette/CBC - image credit)
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says the chronic lack of fire-firefighting, fire prevention, and emergency services in First Nations communities contribute to fatal fires. (Marc Doucette/CBC - image credit)

Police have confirmed two adults have died as a result of a major house fire in the remote Cree community of Peawanuck in northern Ontario.

The Nishnawbe Aski Police Service says officers first received a call for service late Thursday evening about a house fire. Late Sunday morning, the service confirmed two fatalities and said three other people remain in hospital.

Members of the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service's North East Crime Unit are investigating the fire, alongside the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshall, Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, and OPP.

The blaze comes just a year after a 10-year-old girl perished in a house fire in Peawanuck. At the time, the fly-in community of about 250 people near the Hudson Bay coast did not have access to fire services or basic firefighting equipment.

Weenusk First Nation, located in Peawanuck, is in Treaty 9 territory. It is one of 49 communities represented by Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), and one of eight Mushkegowuk Nations under the Mushkegowuk Council.

CBC News previously reported that Indigenous Services Canada purchased a fire truck for Peawanuck in January 2022 for about half a million dollars, and that the community also had plans to build a fire hall. Alison Linklater, then-grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council, said the truck's delivery was delayed because the ice wasn't thick enough on the winter roads to support its weight. The truck was to arrive from Winnipeg by mid-March 2023.

Joyce Hunter is a member of Weenusk First Nation who now lives in Thunder Bay. She is related to the victims and says the two people who died were in their early twenties.

According to Hunter, Peawanuck did receive the fire truck but still doesn't have a fire hall.

CBC News is awaiting a response from Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu's office regarding the state of fire services in Peawanuck.

Calls for national fire strategy

In 2021, the Ontario Chief Coroner reported that First Nation children under 10 are 86 times more likely to die in a fire than non-First Nation children. Meanwhile, First Nation people living on-reserve are five times more likely to die in a fire, according to the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council.

Hunter is calling for a national fire strategy to prevent First Nations from continuing to be disproportionately affected.

"Fire protection is more than trucks and halls. It's about education, it's about prevention, it's about putting measures in place and making sure that every home has working smoke alarms," she said.

"There isn't a regulatory regime for building and fire codes – and then when you couple poor housing conditions and overcrowded conditions, this is a recipe for disaster."

Timmins—James Bay MP Charles Angus expressed his condolences – and frustration – over the fatal fire in a public Facebook post Friday.

"I am deeply sorry to hear the loss of two people in a house fire in Peawanuck. This past week I called out the Minister on the failure to commit to a fire hall after the community lost a 10-year-old child to a house fire last winter," Angus wrote.

"The government continues to ignore the fire safety needs of Treaty 9 communities. We need a major overhaul with guarantees of fire trucks, proper halls, fire training, fire inspections. It is time to make fire safety for First Nation communities a priority."

Last Tuesday, Angus spoke in the House of Commons about the need for more fire safety support across Treaty 9 communities in light of the recent fire that destroyed the only school in Eabametoong First Nation.

'Chronic' lack of fire and emergency services

Thursday's fire has re-traumatized many community members who are still reeling from last year's fatality, Hunter said.

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and his council expressed condolences to the families affected by the fire in Peawanuck in a news release issued Sunday afternoon. The organization has mobilized mental health and other support workers in the community.

"This tragedy highlights the ever-present danger of fire, especially in remote First Nations, which are at unnecessary risk due to the chronic lack of fire-firefighting, fire prevention, and emergency services," the release says.

"We have lost far too many members to house fires and other tragedies that may have been preventable had the proper resources been available. Our leaders are frustrated that these tragedies continue to happen despite our best efforts to secure the resources they so desperately need," it says.

Hunter encourages people to reach out to their local representatives to call for more action to protect First Nations communities from fires.

"People shouldn't have to die in order for them to get the proper service that they need," Hunter said. "It also makes me question the value that is put on our lives as [Indigenous people] as compared to the rest of people in mainstream society – it shouldn't be that way."

Those who wish to make donations to the victims' families are asked to contact Weenusk First Nation's band office at 705-473-2554.