Fire that destroyed new family wellness centre in western Manitoba First Nation suspicious: RCMP

Police are investigating a suspicious fire that destroyed a new family wellness centre in Minegoziibe First Nation, in western Manitoba, on Monday.

Minegoziibe First Nation had recently started using space for wellness initiatives, chief says

A building is engulfed in bright orange flames at night, with a large plume of smoke rising to right of the frame.
A suspicious fire destroyed the new family resource centre in Minegoziibe (Pine Creek) First Nation on Monday. (Submitted by RCMP)

Police are investigating a suspicious fire that destroyed a wellness centre in a First Nation in western Manitoba on Monday.

Winnipegosis RCMP were called to the scene in Minegoziibe First Nation, also known as Pine Creek, around 12:35 a.m., police said in a Tuesday news release.

When they arrived, Blue Sky Family Wellness was completely engulfed in flames and the fire department was on scene.

No one was injured.

Minegoziibe Chief Derek Nepinak said when he heard the news the new space had burned down, one thing stood out in particular.

"A lot of different things can go through your mind considering the complex social issues in our communities," he said, but the fire is especially sad because the community had recently started using the space to talk about the ongoing ground search for possible unmarked graves near the former Pine Creek Residential School.

"We were feasting and having community meetings there. So it was very quickly becoming important to us," he said in an interview with CBC's Up to Speed guest host Stephanie Cram.

"And to lose it that quickly to a fire that we believe was started on purpose is very, very disheartening and very sad news for all of us."

Nepinak said the community started using the centre in early June, and there were plans to offer health services, traditional healing and ceremony for families and children in the area.

The loss also affected him in a more personal way, Nepinak said: just a few days before the building went up in flames, he donated an art piece from his personal collection to the new centre.

The piece by the late Cree artist Allen Sapp from Red Pheasant Cree Nation depicted a grandmother rocking a baby in a traditional swing.

"I thought that that was so appropriate for that wellness centre to receive," Nepinak said. 

"Because it really is about healing and … remembering who we were as Anishinaabe people and revitalizing, reclaiming and renewing our culture in the principles — in the fundamental principles — that we once shared as families."

He said Minegoziibe First Nation is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in connection with the fire.

"We want people to come forward and start talking about some of these challenges that we're experiencing in the community," Nepinak said. 

"We think it's important to find who did this and offer the types of services [needed] and hopefully bring justice to the issue the way that our community expects it to be brought."

Police consider the fire to be suspicious and are investigating.

Anyone with information can call Winnipegosis RCMP at 204-656-7003, call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477.

Minegoziibe is on the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, about 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

With files from Avi Jacob