Fatal fire investigation underway in Ontario First Nation as condolences pour in over 'tragic loss'
Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer says his deputy, regional coroner, other investigators en route Friday
Ontario's chief coroner says a team of investigators was en route Friday to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug to find out more about a deadly house fire the day before, while Indigenous leaders and federal and provincial government officials all offered their condolences over the blaze that killed five.
According to Donny Morris, the chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug — also known as KI or Big Trout Lake — the fire occurred at around 5 a.m., on May 2 in a home in the community, killing a single mom and her kids.
The investigative team travelling to the remote First Nation, located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, that will be tasked with uncovering details about the fire and its victims will include Ontario's deputy chief coroner James Sproule, Michael Wilson, the northwest region's supervising coroner, as well as experts from the forensic pathology service, the Ontario Fire Marshal and the OPP, Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer told CBC News.
"There's been ongoing communication with the chief of the community and ... the investigative plan is being developed and will be informed by the attendance at the scene," Huyer said.
"In any tragic event such as this, it takes meticulous work to understand what may have happened, talking with people, learning from people."
Huyer said work already done as part of an ongoing and broader probe by his office into the dozens of deaths in house fires in Ontario Indigenous communities will help inform the investigation now underway in KI, but Thursday's fire itself won't be folded into the panel investigation, which was struck in early 2018.
"We're going to stick with the scope that we have to ensure we're maintaining the plan that's in place."
Included in that "chief coroner's table" is a 2016 blaze in Pikangikum that killed nine, a fire in 2014 in Mishkeegogamang where four people died and a 2013 fire in Wunnumin Lake that killed three. In total, the probe is examining 66 deaths in 29 fires in Ontario First Nations between 2007 and 2017, Huyer said.
'A devastating loss'
Many condolences poured in for the community on Friday.
"We were saddened to learn of the tragedy this morning and our prayers are with the victims, their families and the entire community during this difficult time," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
"This is a devastating loss for the community. We have assured Chief and Council that we will support them in any way possible as they grieve the days and week ahead."
Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon also expressed his "sincere condolences to the community, the families and to the leadership of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug."
A team of crisis support workers from NAN was scheduled to go to the community Friday morning.
During an interview on Thursday with CBC News, KI Chief Morris said that people trying to rescue the family during the house fire were also hurt.
'Preventable and unnecessary tragedy'
Morris said it was hard to fight the fire because the houses in the community are old and the First Nation also lacks proper firefighting equipment.
"Out of respect for the community, we should all maintain and respect their need for privacy during this time," Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald stated in a written release. "I have spoken to Chief Morris this afternoon and offered my prayers and support as the community grapples with this catastrophe."
"As I continue to reflect on this tragic situation, it is with a sad heart that I realize that this preventable and unnecessary tragedy is affecting yet again another First Nation community."
A GoFundMe page has been set up for donations for the community and Chief and Council have asked community members and others to not post pictures or speculation on social media.
"While we mourn now, we will be looking to seek solutions, with all parties to prevent any future unnecessary deaths of First Nations due to fire," Archibald said.
Thanking the first responders
Ontario's Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford also shared his condolences "with the families, their friends, the community, and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation leadership on the tragic house fire."
"I would like to thank the first responders and acknowledge their strength and support of the community during this terrible time."
Rickford, who is also the MPP for the nearby Kenora riding, said his government "will work with the community and the federal government over the next days and weeks to see how we can continue to be of assistance and to offer support as needed to help with this crisis."
NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa expressed their "deepest condolences to everyone impacted by this tragic loss."
"We hope they find solace and strength in community, and feel an outpouring of love from across the province as they grieve together."
'It affects everyone'
Kenora MP Bob Nault also shared his condolences to the "friends and families of those lost in the recent house fire," on Friday.
"When something like this happens in a community, it affects everyone, including those in nearby communities," Nault stated in a Friday release.
"As we continue to mourn the lives of those lost, I offer my support in this time of unbelievable grief. In the coming days, I know community members will bring strength and support to each other as they work to overcome this tragedy."