A Fire Killed Nine People on a Canadian Reserve With One Fire Truck, But No Water

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Photo by John Woods/The Canadian Press

A house fire that killed nine people in a remote First Nation in northern Ontario is drawing fresh attention to the lack of firefighting resources on reserves in Canada.

Pikangikum — which has one fire truck, but no water to make it useful — is in a state of shock, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, and "trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy" that occurred Tuesday night in the fly-in reserve about 500 miles northwest of Thunder Bay.

While police have not released the exact number of victims, Robert Nault, a local member of parliament, told the media the death toll on one family had reached nine. Three of the victims were children.

The deaths are devastating for the already embattled community, which has made headlines over the past few years because of its high youth suicide rate.

Politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered their condolences to the community on Wednesday.

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"We continue to be engaged with provincial and indigenous leadership on how to build better infrastructure, how to secure the future for indigenous youth and their communities," he said, speaking from Edmonton.

"This is not just about the moral right thing to do. It's about investing in our shared future in this country."

There are currently no firefighting services in Pikangikum and 95 percent of homes do not have running water, according to Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).

"They have a fire truck, but the infrastructure for that piece of equipment to be effective is not there," said Fiddler. "There's no running water, which makes it difficult for that fire truck to be an effective resource."

An internal federal government from 2011, obtained by the Canadian Press through access to information laws last December, found that almost half of First Nations in Canada have "little to no fire protection," depending too often on unqualified volunteer firefighters.

The report found not only that fire incidence rates were 2.4 times higher for First Nations than the rest of the country, but that First Nations residents are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who called the findings of the report "not acceptable," issued a statement on Wednesday, saying her department was in talks with the community to determine what kind of support was needed.

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She added that Health Minister Jane Philpott would be working with local and First Nation leaders, as well as the province, to provide Pikangikum with a trauma team.

Fiddler told VICE News that First Nations communities were eager to start discussing how to access new federal infrastructure funding, explaining that the fatal fire wasn't an isolated incident and could've been prevented.

The chief cited a "chronic lack of firefighting services and substandard housing in NAN First Nations" in a statement, calling it a "deadly combination that has claimed far too many lives."

In the short term, the priority should be equipping homes with smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and starting regular inspections, he said.

The chief made a point of being in Pikangikum the day the federal budget was released, after learning that priority would be placed on infrastructure issues.

"When we talk about a lack of proper housing, lack of access to clean drinking water, lack of access to fire suppression, to basic health care, we're talking about Pikangikum," he said.

But who the responsibility for fire services on reserves ultimately falls on is a gray area, said Fiddler.

"For the most part, because of that lack of clarity, we see the conditions that exist in our communities," he said, adding that he hopes to sort out the "jurisdictional wrangling on who is responsible for what."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk
Photo by John Woods/The Canadian Press