Thunder Bay

First Nations replacing dangerous wood stoves to save lives

More than $2.5 million in federal funding will continue the work of Nishnawbe Aski Nation to make homes heated by wood safer for children and families.

House fires are a major safety hazard in communities that rely on wood for heating

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says he welcomes the new federal funding to improve safety in 75 homes and looks forward to future announcements so that all homes in Nishnawbe Aski Nation have a safe source of heat. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Work to replace dangerous wood stoves with high-efficiency heating systems in remote First Nations in northern Ontario got a $2.5 million boost from the federal government on Monday.

The initiative is part of Amber's Fire Safety Campaign, launched by Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in memory of Amber Strang, an infant, who was the youngest member of a family of nine who died in a 2016 house fire in Pikangikum First Nation.

Many homes must rely on wood for heat because of a lack of infrastructure servicing the 31 fly-in only communities in NAN, said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler 

"We know that it's not the safest and we've lost so many of our citizens over the years to house fires," he said, adding that his own sister and her family are still recovering after escaping a fire in their home in Muskrat Dam First Nation last summer. "We hear stories like this in our communities too many times."

The funding will replace stoves in 75 homes with entire new heating systems and ensure they meet proper standards, said NAN infrastructure and housing director Michael McKay.  First Nations members will be trained to do the installation work and inspect it.

Federal Health Minister and Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu made the funding announcement on behalf of Natural Resources Canada as part of a package of $13 million in funding the government says will "combat climate change, drive innovation and create economic opportunities for rural and Indigenous communities."

There is a link between safe homes, prosperous communities and a clean environment, Hajdu said.

"What I have learned from traditional teachers is that if you don't have a healthy environment and that includes a healthy social environment, then you can't move forward with prosperity," she said.

Wapekeka, Nibinamik and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug will receive funding under the program this year, Fiddler said, noting that five people died in a house fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib last year.

Three more communities will be selected next year for retrofits under this funding and Fiddler said he hopes to see more funding announcements in the future to ensure all homes within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation can have a safe source of heat.