Pikangikum fire highlights dire conditions faced by First Nations, grand chief says

The house fire that killed nine people in Pikangikum is a recurring nightmare for people who live on remote northern First Nations, says a Manitoba grand chief.

Poor housing conditions, subpar building materials, lack of water to blame, Sheila North-Wilson says

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says she supports a call for an inquest into fatal fires on First Nations. (CBC )

The house fire that killed nine people in Pikangikum is a recurring nightmare for people who live on remote northern First Nations, says a Manitoba grand chief.

"My first thought was, not again," Sheila North-Wilson said when she heard about the Tuesday night fire that took the lives of three children and six adults in the northwestern Ontario community.

"There's too many lives being lost and [others] at risk right now."

Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday night for a candlelight vigil on Pikangikum First Nation. (Courtesy Kyle Peters)
North-Wilson, who heads up Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern Manitoba First Nations, says poor housing conditions and subpar building materials are often to blame.

"There are so many homes that are not up to code and up to the standards that anyone outside of the communities would expect for fire safety," she said.

"There are potentially hundreds of homes across our north, including Ontario, Manitoba and other provinces, that are hazardous, and we see it every once in a while popping up with tragedies like this."

In December, three people died after a home caught fire in North-Wilson's home community of Oxford House.

Making matters worse, many remote First Nations homes do not have running water to help fight fires, North-Wilson said.

Many homes don't have access to fire hydrants and some communities don't even have fire trucks. Those with trucks often need to fill them from a nearby river or lake if there are no hydrants nearby, she said.

And even if there are trucks and water, getting to homes can be a challenge. The roads are in rough condition or too muddy for the equipment to get down.

Pikangikum is a remote community located 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay and is only accessible by air. (Canadian Press)
Sweeping changes need to be made to improve the conditions on reserves, but in a more immediate timeframe, a positive impact could be made by changing home construction, North-Wilson said.

"Change all the old wood panelling and the glue that is currently in a lot of the older homes in our communities, and change it to drywall," she said.

"At least if there was a fire sparked, it wouldn't ignite as fast as the current clapboard and glue."

North-Wilson is in full support of the call for an inquest into fatal fires in Canada's indigenous communities.

The suggestion was made Thursday by Steve Nolan, the president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society. Nolan told CBC News he wants to see the issue examined more closely. 

While many indigenous communities have working agreements with fire services in neighbouring municipalities, that option isn't available to remote, fly-in communities like Pikangikum, he said.

An inquest into the matter "is very necessary and long overdue," said North-Wilson.

It would identify the bigger problems on reserves and lead to some solutions, while also educating the general public about the situation faced by so many people.

"There's so many people that have so many misconceptions about why this keeps happening," she said.

"They think that we're purposely trying to go into our homes and overcrowd them or purposely letting our houses run down when really, there is a lack of resources. [People] don't have enough money or supplies to even repair broken down windows or doors that need to be fixed or replaced."

Pikangikum investigation

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Const. Diana Cole said the investigation into the cause of the Pikangikum fire, which remains undetermined, is being conducted by the OPP, Office of the Fire Marshal and the regional coroner.

"Today we're going to begin the physical and forensic examination of the scene," she said, noting that officers will sift through the rubble and look for physical and forensic clues.

"Over the next several days the investigation is going to entail a very detailed and systematic process of the scene."

The names of the victims won't be released publicly until autopsies are complete and next of kin have been notified.