Makwa Sahgaiehcan deadly fire: Unpaid bills of $3,400 part of response dispute
Village of Loon Lake, Sask., says it warned First Nation about unpaid bills before fire that killed 2 toddlers
A dispute over unpaid bills valued at nearly $3,400 led to a decision not to send volunteer firefighters to a fatal house fire Tuesday on a northern Saskatchewan First Nation.
The Village of Loon Lake is generally responsible for emergency services in the area. It said it did not respond to the fire, which killed two Makwa Sahgaiehcan toddlers, because the First Nation owed the village $3,380.89.
Laurie Lehoux has worked as the village administrator in Loon Lake since 2012. She said the issue of unpaid bills has endured for a year.
An agreement between the village and the First Nation was first struck in January 2013. It outlined costs for attending fires.
The contract agreement also stated that retainer fees were to be paid no later than 30 days after the time they were billed.
"Or else it would render this agreement void and null and all fire services would be revoked," Lehoux said.
However, Chief Richard Ben of Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation said he doesn't remember signing any contract.
"We've never even had a contract to begin with in the past," he said. "That's what I can't get my head around ... I'm actually going to go to the village office and see this contract. I was also going to go and make the payment for the amount owed. It had nothing to do with our finances. It was just to create better services for our First Nation."
Between March and May 2014, the Loon Lake fire department attended calls to the First Nation for brush and structure fires. By September, Lehoux said the village hadn't received its fees, despite calls and notes to the First Nation.
On Jan. 30, 2015, the fire department sent a letter to the First Nation saying it was over three months behind on payment. In that letter, the fire department said it would no longer respond to any fires until its account was paid.
"Any time that they were over their 30 days, they should've known that services may not have continued. Definitely with the January letter, they should have known that no one was going to show up to this last fire," Lehoux said.
Ben said the First Nation always pays the fire department after the call is finished.
"It was more or less they come, and we pay them and that was it," he said.
"I'm pissed off because we've always paid them," Ben said. "They can't say we haven't put thousands of dollars into that department. And they've always showed up at every incident."
Ben said people in his community are upset.
"Well, they're sad," he said. "They're mad. They're mad right now at the fire chief. You know, I told them not to blame anybody. We've got to move forward and those are our neighbours … we have to work with them at the end of the day."
Lehoux hopes that after the community grieves its immeasurable loss, it can work with the federal government and the village to ensure this doesn't happen again.
"Hopefully when all that is over, the three governments can sit down and maybe make something that's better for everyone, I don't know. But here's hoping," she said.
The Village of Loon Lake has released a series of letters concerning fire services between the village and Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.