A shortage of safe housing on First Nations reserves is leading to too many deaths in house fires, says the chief of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, located 320 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

The community of nearly 1,000 has lost 27 people in house fires since 1977, Chief Connie Gray-McKay said. The death of two children in a fire at Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan was a stark reminder of four people killed in Mishkeegogamang in a house fire last winter.

A state of emergency was declared at Mishkeegogamang after the 2014 fire and Gray-Mckay pushed for an inquest to look at inadequate housing as a root cause of fatal fires in First Nations. 

"You look at the fire in Saskatchewan, I mean how many more people, children, need to die needlessly like that?" Gray-Mckay said in an interview with CBC News this week.

Gray-Mckay's request for an inquest is stalled by Ontario's problems with Aboriginal representation on jury rolls.

Mishkeegogamang Chief Connie Gray-McKay

Mishkeegogamang First Naiton Chief Connie Gray-McKay says 250 families are on a waiting list for housing in her community. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

The housing shortage at Mishkeegogamang means that many families continue to live in one-room plywood shacks with roaring wood stoves to keep warm, she said.

There are 250 families on a waiting list for a house in the First Nation, Gray-McKay said. The community receives funding from the federal government to build four houses per year or repair existing homes.

"We'll never catch up," she said.

Housing 'a basic human right'

The First Nation is financing renovations on some homes to make them more livable and safe for families, the chief said, but even that puts pressure on the community's budget.

"I don't think that outsiders, and I say outsiders respectfully, I don't think they fully understand the costs of building in First Nations," Gray-McKay said. There are no building supply stores within hundreds of kilometres of Mishkeegogamang. 

Repairs were recently finished on one house and now chief and council have the difficult decision of determining which of 10 families in desperate need of a house, will get to live in it, she said.

Housing is the number one problem in every First Nation, Gray-McKay said, and governments fail to realize that money spent building homes would reduce social services and policing costs that result from multiple families crammed together in small houses.

"Housing is a basic human right," she said. "Someone from the government needs to come and live in our community to really understand that."