An early-morning fire on a First Nation west of Meadow Lake, Sask., has claimed the lives of two toddlers — prompting criticism about the lack of firefighting services on reserves.
RCMP said officers were dispatched around 1:30 a.m. CST Tuesday to the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, where they found a home engulfed in flames.
They said a man, who had gone to the home and found it was on fire, came out carrying two small children.
According to RCMP, the man was the father of the two-year-old boy and one-year-old girl. Both children died at the scene.
RCMP said the children's grandmother was also in the home, but no other injuries have been reported due.
No names were being released.
Loon Lake fire department didn't respond
Community leaders are now wondering why there aren't more resources allocated to fire prevention on reserves.
Chief Richard Ben of Makwa Sahgaiehacan said the community, which is 60 kilometres west of Meadow Lake, usually depends on volunteer firefighters from Loon Lake, but they didn't respond.
Volunteer fire chief Larry Heon in Loon Lake, near the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, says he got an automated call about the fire Tuesday morning, his crew didn't go to the scene. The reserve sent a letter cancelling its contract last year with the village for fire services, Heon said.
The community, however, said there previously was a dispute about how much the band owed the village for firefighting costs.
RCMP said they were the only first responders to the fire.
"It's a big big tragedy for us, especially for two children," Ben said, "In a way, those are like our kids and I couldn't help but cry, too."
Heon said criticism directed at his crews for not responding to the fatal house fire is unfair.
In speaking to Saskatoon Morning's Dan Kerslake, he explained the town of Loon Lake cancelled its contract to provide firefighting services to Makwa Sahgaiehcan last May, because the reserve had unpaid bills.
"We have a very small operating per capita. We have a very small department. How do you operate? How do I protect the rest of the community if I burn everything, my resources, and not get paid for it?"
Heon, who is also the mayor of Loon Lake, invited the chief of Makwa Sahgaiehcan to see all the paperwork showing the reserve's history of unpaid bills.
Heon received a 911 call from the reserve early Tuesday morning.
"What went through my mind?" he said. "Protocol. I just thought about it and we do not respond to fires at Makwa Sahgaiehcan right at this present time."
Heon became emotional when asked about the criticism his fire department is receiving.
"I spent 23 years in the military to protect people in this country," he said. "And now to have this thrown back at me that we just let people die in my own country is very saddening."
Heon says he's not sure how much help fire crews would have been because they normally arrive 10 to 15 minutes after RCMP officials.
'Hurt by the tragedy'
Noella Mitsuing, who lives on the reserve, said she found out about the fire on Tuesday morning.
"I've only found out through Facebook," she said. "I'm just going out now to check out the place and then also to try and see the family that lost their little loved ones."
Mitsuing said she knows the father, who is from Makwa Sahgaiehcan, but the mother is not from the community.
"I know a lot of people are hurt by the tragedy," she said. "I'm not even sure where to begin, but I know that once we all come together, there are people willing to help those who lost loved ones. I guess we just have to work on a team approach to keep them going and to keep their strength up. And also to guide the family through their difficult times."
Call to educate
Frank Bighead, director of technical services with the Prince Albert Tribal Council, said the lack of resources for fire prevention is an issue faced by many First Nations communities in the province.
"There's one fire prevention officer in the province for First Nations, and he's in my office," he said. "That's all we have is one guy. And he's trying to train fire departments, do inventory on trucks, do all of that , and It's impossible to keep up."
There were at least two other fires that claimed lives in the last year — one, in Pelican Narrows, led to the death of two young boys.
"If you look at the deaths in my district, the two little boys who had candles in the attic. If you would have gotten to them and given them some basic and simple education on fire, I don't think that would've happened." Bighead said.
But Bighead said the communities simply don't have the resources to do this without help from the federal government.