Winnipeg councillors move to increase rooming-house inspections after fatal fire

City hall is set to put the wheels in motion to ensure bylaw officers visit rooming houses more often.

Activist Sel Burrows urges more frequent fire inspections, as well

A memorial adorns what is left of an Austin Street rooming house, where two people died in a fire on Thursday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

City hall set the wheels in motion Monday to ensure bylaw officers visit rooming houses more often.

Council's protection, community services and parks committee voted Monday afternoon to give city bylaw officers three months to figure out how to reallocate their resources in a manner that ensures rooming houses are inspected at least once a year.

Couns. Ross Eadie (Mynarski) and Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) authored the motion to ensure general living conditions are adequate. They did so before a house fire in North Point Douglas claimed the lives of Brenda Campbell, 51, and John McKinnon Bendon, 61.

Inner-city activist Sel Burrows praised the effort as complementary to parallel efforts to increase the frequency of fire inspections, as well.

Burrows, who chairs the Point Douglas Residents Committee, said Winnipeg has one of the best neighbourhood livability bylaws in North America. It only needs to be enforced, he said.

"It's one of the most powerful tools we have," Burrows said in an appearance before the committee on Monday morning. 

City bylaw-enforcement manager Winston Yee said the city is already studying what resources are available to increase rooming-house inspections. Most of the structures informally known as rooming houses are converted residential dwellings, he said.

A Winnipeg rooming house is engulfed in fire on Thursday morning. Police said 15 people were inside when the fire broke out and 13 escaped; two died. (Courtesy Joshua Peterson)
The motion did not involve fire inspections. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is not required to conduct fire inspections of rooming houses every year, though it does make an effort to do so anyway, the city confirmed last week.

Police say arson is suspected in last week's fire on Austin Street North, and they are investigating the two deaths as homicides. The city conducted a fire inspection of that rooming house in 2014.

Burrows said while fire inspections cannot prevent arson, they can ensure smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are working and make sure tenants can exit residences unimpeded.

Fire inspections save lives, he said.

"The minimum standard should be an annual fire inspection," he said. "We've lost a lot of wonderful human beings to rooming-house fires over the last year."

Point Douglas Residents Committee chair Sel Burrows addresses council's protection, community services and parks committee. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service inspected  557 of the city's 645 licensed rooming houses in 2015, fire-prevention manager Janet Bier said.

Burrows said the city could levy fees to help pay for rooming-house inspections, as it does for other forms of fire inspections. Bier said she was amenable to that idea.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.