Thunder Bay

'Chief coroner's table' struck to probe fire deaths in Ontario First Nations

Ontario's chief coroner says 58 people have died in house fires in Indigenous communities in Ontario over the course of a decade, and he's striking a committee to learn why.

Chief coroner's office says 58 people died in house fires in Ontario First Nations in a decade

Dirk Huyer is Ontario's chief coroner. He was in Thunder Bay Thursday to address the NAN Chiefs Winter Assembly. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Ontario's chief coroner says 58 people have died in house fires in Indigenous communities in Ontario over the course of a decade, and he's striking a committee to learn why.

Dirk Huyer announced the initiative while addressing the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Chief's Winter Assembly in Thunder Bay, Ont., Thursday afternoon. NAN is a political territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

According to Huyer, the deaths occurred in 34 separate fires in the 10-year period ending in 2016. His office was considering an inquest into two devastating fires: one in Pikangikum in March, 2016 where nine people died and another nine months later in Oneida that killed five.

"But then we looked back and recognized ... that fire deaths continue and have had multiple tragedies over years," he told the chiefs assembly. "This is a tremendous number and very disproportionate compared to any fire deaths across Ontario."

First Nations leaders have called for a full inquest into fatal fires in Indigenous communities, as has have First Nations firefighters.

Huyer said with so many deaths, proceeding with an inquest would take a very long time. Instead, the "chief coroner's table" will be tasked with getting a fuller understanding of how the deaths occurred, the circumstances that contributed to them and what systemic issues may be involved.

Huyer said he doesn't yet know how many fatal fires there were in 2017, but any that occurred will also be part of the review.

The team is still being formed, he said, but will include expertise from the Office of the Fire Marshal plus representation from Indigenous Services Canada. Huyer added he will work with organizations like NAN and Chiefs of Ontario to "ensure that we have effective representation at the table that will give us the true information we need to find."
A deadly house fire in Pikangikum First Nation in 2016 killed nine people, including three children under the age of five. (Kyle Peters/The Canadian Press)

He added that the initiative will also speak with communities that have suffered fatal house fires.

"[It's] a tremendous tragedy," he told reporters of the large number of deaths.

First Nations leaders, including NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, have pointed to a number of issues affecting Indigenous communities, including inadequate housing, unsafe building standards, lack of enforcement of building codes and outdated or ineffective fire suppression equipment. A federal government report has also stated that First Nations residents are also 10 times more likely to die in a house fire.

The coroner's review is expected to take about a year, Huyer said, adding there is no plan in place to come up with recommendations aimed at bettering fire safety in Indigenous communities, but "it's still in its early stages."

"Maybe there's things that we identify through the table that just cry out for recommendations, but the primary goal is to have as complete an understanding as we can of the death investigations."