A fatal house fire on a B.C. reserve has renewed calls for improving housing conditions for Canada's aboriginal population, as investigators and the provincial coroners service keep up their attempts to remove the four bodies found in the rubble from the blaze.
The recovery of the bodies has proven to be difficult because the house on the Chemainus Indian Reserve, near Ladysmith on the east coast of Vancouver Island, collapsed into its basement after the blaze early Wednesday morning.
Five people from three generations of an aboriginal family were killed in the house fire, witnesses said. Two of their bodies were located Wednesday, and the B.C. Coroners Service found two more Thursday evening. One body remained to be found.
"[They were] all together close to a window, where we have been informed they were assisting with getting others out of the house," regional coroner Rose Stanton said.
'First Nations people are forced to live in housing that should be condemned.' — Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs
Three people, including two children, escaped the fire, which broke out at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the RCMP said. Five other people were injured when trying, in vain, to save the four women and a girl caught inside.
Neighbours said Thursday that 12 people were living in the home, built more than 50 years ago.
Investigators require more time to sift through the rubble before the bodies can be removed, the North Cowichan-Duncan RCMP said.
"They are probably going to be here for a day, two days or maybe longer," Const. Edward Power told CBC News on Thursday.
"It's a really tedious process. Piece by piece they have to start sifting though the ruins there."
Witnesses have said the home exploded into flames after a woman carrying a gas lantern entered. The official cause of the house fire is still under investigation, but police have said the gas lantern might have been placed on a wood stove inside the house, causing an explosion.
Band administrator Stephen Olson said Thursday he was told there were two explosions.
"One had occurred on the main floor of the house, where the wood stove was, so that would support the contention that the lantern did explode. And there was a second explosion on the second floor of the house," Olson told CBC News.
Concern for aboriginal housing conditions
The fatal house fire has renewed calls for improving housing conditions for aboriginal people nationwide.
Peter Aleck, a housing co-ordinator at the Chemainus reserve, said he's concerned other old houses might be prone to catching fire.
"I said before that it wouldn't take too much for older houses to burn because of the panel walls. It's not all updated," Aleck told CBC News.
Aleck said the house that burned down Wednesday was on a list of 94 old homes on the reserve that had been deemed unsafe.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, said Thursday that housing for First Nations is in a state of crisis.
"First Nations people are forced to live in housing that should be condemned. Quite frankly these houses are fire traps, they're death traps," Phillip said.
"It is literally a life and death situation and too many people are needlessly dying in these tragic fires as a result of the appalling housing conditions within First Nations communities, both on and off reserve, and quite frankly it's a national disgrace," he said.
Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called on the federal government Thursday to use its expected economic stimulus package to commit $3 billion toward infrastructure projects on aboriginal reserves.
The funds should be spent over the next five years to finance a range of projects in aboriginal communities, including in critical areas such as housing, Fontaine said.
The AFN says First Nations across the country are in need of 87,000 new housing units, and another 44,000 need repairs.