Toronto Star

Firefighters attend the scene in the aftermath of a fire that killed 5 family members in Oneida on the Thames in December 2016.   Dave Chidley/Canadian Press

A Star investigation reveals a disturbing number of deaths related to house fires in First Nations communities and leaders who feel their calls for help have been ignored

 

Behind a low wooden fence, nine new headstones stand in a row, framed against white snow and black pines.

Last March, three generations – including three children – died in a house fire just down the road in this northern Ontario First Nation community. The final stone in the line belongs to Amber Strang, only six-months-old when she died.

Half a year later, a man and a child died in a trailer fire in Saskatchewan’s Montreal Lake First Nation. By the time emergency services arrived, the home was consumed by flames.

Three months after that, a father and four children, all under eight years old, died when a fire tore through a two-storey home in Oneida of the Thames, southwest of London.

The graves of nine members of the Strang family, all of whom were killed in a house fire in Pikangikum in March 2016.   Jesse Winter/Toronto Star

A Star investigation has found that at least 173 people have died in fires in First Nation communities across the country since the government stopped tracking the deaths seven years ago. At least 25 of them are children.

The federal government doesn’t know the death toll of these fires because it stopped keeping track of on-reserve fire fatalities in 2010.

Though the factors contributing to these deaths are numerous and complex, many of the homes that burned to the ground — with people inside them — did not meet basic building or fire code requirements. Many didn’t have a working smoke detector.

For the more than 328,000 First Nations people who live on reserve, the chances of dying in a house fire is 10.4 times higher than in the rest of the country, according to a 2007 Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation report, compiled when the government was still collecting the data.

Government documents show First Nations leaders and fire prevention experts have been calling for changes for years that could prevent these deaths, things like legislation enforcing the national fire code, a national First Nations fire marshal’s office, and a commitment to start tracking the death toll again.

The government says it stopped tracking the data to “ease the reporting burden” on First Nations communities.

Ontario regional Chief Isadore Day, though, said by not tracking First Nation fire-related deaths, “the government is saying First Nation lives don’t matter.”

“These deaths are preventable deaths,” he said. “The fact that the government wants to walk away from examining them and investing in solutions, while they say there’s no more important relationship than the one we have with indigenous people, is totally contradictory.”

The northern Ontario First Nation community of Pikangikum is home to approximately 2,000 people.   Jesse Winter/Toronto Star

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett herself knows how bad the problem is.

In 2013, when she was the Liberal indigenous affairs critic, she said the deaths are “a critical issue of public safety,” and called for long-sought changes that First Nations leaders and fire prevention experts have been pushing for years.

In a letter to then-minister Bernard Valcourt, obtained by the Star through a freedom-of-information request, Bennett called on the department to implement a set of recommendations that the Aboriginal Firefighter’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs have asked for repeatedly.

The indigenous and northern affairs ministry says it’s up to individual First Nations to voluntarily adopt national building and fire codes, which requires that housing meet certain standards such as having smoke alarms. However, as the Aboriginal Firefighters Association points out, there’s little point having the existing codes without enforcement to back them up.

Closing that gap could help save lives, said aboriginal firefighters executive director Blaine Wiggins.

“The No. 1 issue right now that will make a difference is building codes and fire codes on reserve,” Wiggins said.

Indigenous affairs says that infrastructure built with money it provides must meet the national codes, but “one of the things that isn’t there is a robust inspection process that a municipality would have to ensure the codes are actually being met on First Nations,” Wiggins said.

In her 2013 letter, Bennett agreed such legislation needs to be a priority.

“The most pressing issue is the lack of regulation regarding the application of building codes or fire inspections in First Nations communities,” Bennett wrote.

Bennett also called for an independent fire marshal’s office for First Nation communities.

“Such an office could work with communities to establish standards for fire safety and perform inspections, and would be a First Nations-led solution to the current gap in fire prevention and protection standards on reserve,” she wrote.

After more than a year with Bennett at the department’s helm, there is no legislation enforcing national building and fire codes on First Nations, no independent fire marshal’s office and fire deaths are not tracked.

In an emailed response to the Star’s questions, Bennett’s office blamed the previous Conservative government for cancelling the data collection in 2010 and said it is looking at ways to start tracking fire data again.

“Our government believes this gap needs to be closed,” the statement said. “All options are on the table for how best to accomplish this.”

The department is supporting the aboriginal firefighters association “to evaluate options for a First Nations fire marshal’s office and for improving fire protection on reserve,” and engaging with First Nations on housing and infrastructure issues, including fire codes, the statement said.

The aboriginal firefighters association and Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs first called for the creation of a fire marshal’s office as early as 2013. Now the government says it’s waiting for a new final report from the association, which is due May 31.

Government documents show that other commitments like better data collection and improved fire safety were identified by the department as “priorities” as early as 2010, the same year the government stopped tracking the data all together.

The Star compiled its database by collecting information from provincial and territorial coroners and fire marshals, as well as media reports.

Fire deaths on First Nations by province/territory (2010–2016)

PEIYukonNova ScotiaNew BrunswickNewfoundlandBritish ColumbiaNWTNunavutQuebecSaskatchewanAlbertaManitobaOntario05101520253035400022366132121213444

Source: Jesse Winter, Alicja Siekierska and Astrid Lange

The list is incomplete because of inconsistencies with how the data is tracked across 13 provinces and territories – one of the reasons why groups like the Aboriginal Firefighters Association want an independent fire marshal to track fire incidents and deaths.

In some cases, the provincial fire marshal tracks the deaths. In others, it’s the coroner’s office. Sometimes detailed information is kept on the date, location and cause. Sometimes only a total body count for the year is recorded.

The Quebec coroner’s office provided data within a few hours, but it took the B.C. government more than six weeks to send its numbers.

In the list of deaths discovered by the Star, many of the homes did not have smoke detectors. Fire investigators found no evidence of smoke detectors in the December fire in Oneida of the Thames.

In 2013, community members in Wunnumin Lake First Nation in northern Ontario had to watch a fire kill three people, two of them children. The community had no fire services.

Two-month-old Errabella Angel Harper died in a house fire in St. Theresa Point in Manitoba in 2011 where virtually everything that could go wrong did. The house was crowded, it had no smoke detector or fire extinguishers, it was not in a 911 coverage area and the community’s fire truck was not operational.

Anatomy of a deadly fire

Errabella Angel Harper died in a tragic house fire in St. Theresa Point, Manitoba on Jan. 16, 2011. The circumstances contributing to Errabella’s death, as outlined in a provincial inquest, illustrate some factors at play in many First Nations communities.

HOUSING

The Harper home was old, made of wood, and heated primarily by a wood stove in the living room. Eight people shared three bedrooms.

HEATING

Manitoba’s acting fire commissioner found the cause of the fire was a malfunction of the wood heating system; specifically, the chimney had degraded.

BASIC FIRE SAFETY

The house did not have a smoke detector, fire extinguisher, or running water.

FIRE TRUCK

The community’s fire truck was not operational, as it was frozen due to improper storage conditions. No one knew where the keys to the truck were.

WATER

The community did not have proper fittings to use fire hydrants and the chief said the pressure of the water supply was inadequate for firefighting.

FIRE SERVICES

None of the 21 volunteer firefighters in St. Theresa Point had achieved their firefighting Level I training.

911

There was no 911 coverage in St. Theresa Point. Emergency calls had to be made directly to the local RCMP detachment.

HOUSING

The Harper home was old, made of wood, and heated primarily by a wood stove in the living room. Eight people shared three bedrooms.

HEATING

Manitoba’s acting fire commissioner found the cause of the fire was a malfunction of the wood heating system; specifically, the chimney had degraded.

BASIC FIRE SAFETY

The house did not have a smoke detector, fire extinguisher, or running water.

FIRE TRUCK

The community’s fire truck was not operational, as it was frozen due to improper storage conditions. No one knew where the keys to the truck were.

WATER

The community did not have proper fittings to use fire hydrants and the chief said the pressure of the water supply was inadequate for firefighting.

FIRE SERVICES

None of the 21 volunteer firefighters in St. Theresa Point had achieved their firefighting Level I training.

911

There was no 911 coverage in St. Theresa Point. Emergency calls had to be made directly to the local RCMP detachment.

Errabella Angel Harper died in a tragic house fire in St. Theresa Point, Manitoba
on Jan. 16, 2011. The circumstances contributing to Errabella’s death,
as outlined in a provincial inquest, illustrate some factors at play in many
First Nations communities. Hover over the icons to see more.

In 2014, the night four people died in a fire in Mishkeegogamang, the First Nation’s fire truck was frozen because there wasn’t a heated building to store it. In the months that followed, the community was so devastated that there were 60 airlifts scheduled for people in need of substance and addiction treatment.

Residents in Pikangikum, the fly-in community 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, are still grappling with the loss of nine people in a single fire last year.

On March 29, 2016, around midnight, Amanda Sainnawap-Peters got a frantic phone call in Thunder Bay from her brother in Pikangikum. Her sister Sylvia was missing.

“I can’t find her,” he told Sainnawap-Peters. “There’s a house on fire, and I can’t find Sylvia.”

Police were on the scene within five minutes, but there was nothing they could do. Flames were already shooting out of the home’s north window.

Pikangikum’s only fire truck did not have water in it when the call came in. Roley Peters, the reserve’s fire chief and only firefighter, struggled to get the truck over roads so buckled by frost heaves that fire investigators later called them “nearly impassable”.

Pikangikum’s fire chief and only firefighter, Roley Peters, stands with the community’s fire truck inside the public works building. Peters and other volunteers responded to the Strang family house fire last March, but it was too late, the house was totally engulfed in flames.   Jesse Winter/Toronto Star

The fire destroyed everything. Even the home’s metal fridge melted. The only things left burning were the bodies.

Investigation photos of the scene show little red flags marking the spot where human remains were found. In one photo, the twisted frame and springs of a child’s bed sits next to what fire investigator Manny Garcia assumes was the washing machine.

Autopsies revealed that all nine victims died of smoke inhalation in their beds. There were no smoke alarms in the home.

These fires are “the killers that come in the night,” Garcia said.

There have been repeated calls for coroner’s inquests into the causes of these deadly fires. In early February, a resolution was passed at the chief assembly of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation – which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario – demanding a coroner’s inquest of fire-related deaths. It was brought forward by the leaders of Mishkeegogamang and Pikangikum in the wake of their deadly fires.

“This has to stop. These conditions have to be addressed,” said Mishkeegogamang Chief Connie Gray-McKay. “We need the support to address the issues that cause house fires.”

Ontario’s chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, said he had not received the resolution yet, but acknowledged that the issue of house fires in First Nations communities needs to be examined, whether through recommendations arising from a full inquest, or reports from individual case investigations.

“We are taking this issue seriously. These are horrible tragedies, and something that has been a focus of ours with attendance at all of these deaths,” Dr. Huyer said.

Amanda Sainnawap-Peters sister Sylvia and 8 others died in a deadly house fire in Pikangikum First Nation. Autopsies revealed that all nine victims died of smoke inhalation in their beds.   Jesse Winter/Toronto Star

For Sainnawap-Peters, the last year has been a nightmare. She is constantly asking questions that no one seems to have the answer to.

“How could nine people die? How could not one of them not be able to get out of the house?” she said. “It makes me really, really angry that something like this could happen.”

She’s trying to find part of that answer herself. Her honour’s thesis is on infrastructure issues in Pikangikum.

Whenever she goes home, Sainnawap-Peters visits her sister’s grave. She hops the fence and dusts the snow off the headstone where it reads “beloved daughter, sister and mother.” Plastic flowers hang nearby.

“It’s hard to go home,” she said. “We had plans to make a trip to the Rocky Mountains once I finished school. Now, that’s never going to happen.”