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First Nation fire safety hurt by lack of standards, chief says

First Nations children living on reserve are likely to continue dying at a rate of 10 times greater than other Canadians until standards for fire safety are enacted, says the Assembly of First Nations Ontario regional chief.

No fire safety standards, inspections or reporting requirements on reserve, Stan Beardy says

The chief of Mishkeegogamang First Nation sought a coroner's inquest to expose inadequate funding for fire protection and housing after a fire in this house killed four people in February 2014. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)
The death of two toddlers in Saskatchewan last week is a harsh reminder that First Nations people living on reserve are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than other Canadians. Ontario regional chief Stan Beardy has some solutions.

First Nations children living on reserve are likely to continue dying at a rate of 10 times greater than other Canadians until standards for fire safety are enacted, says the Assembly of First Nations Ontario regional chief.

The lack of a regulatory regime for fire services and inspections in First Nations means there are no minimum requirements, Stan Beardy said, so the federal government isn't held to account for its "inadequate" funding.

The deaths of two toddlers in a house fire on Makwa Sahgaiechcan First Nation in Saskatchewan last week is renewing calls for improved fire safety in First Nations communities. A funeral for the children is planned for Monday.

Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy says the federal government benefits from the lack of minimum standards for fire protection in First Nations. (Cathy Alex/CBC)
"First Nations people — the parents, the grandparents — love their children like everybody else," Beardy said. "We have to continue to create this awareness that all life matters, including First Nations children."

Ottawa spends approximately $26.3 million annually on fire protection services for more than 600 First Nations in Canada. That level of funding means no First Nation in Ontario has been able to purchase fire equipment since 2012, Beardy said.

"If there's no fire equipment on First Nations, if there's no reporting requirements for fire protection, if there's no fire inspections, how do you ensure you're meeting some standard to make sure there's safety?" he asked.

National chief seeks meeting

A First Nations fire protection strategy was developed in 2010 with the then-department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada committing to "collect and analyze data on fire protection services for on-reserve and comparable off-reserve communities."

CBC News asked the department — now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development — for the results of that data collection and analysis. No one from the department has responded to that request.

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations sent a letter to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs on Friday, asking for a meeting to talk about the "crisis" in fire safety.

Perry Bellegarde said he wants the federal government to lift its two per cent cap on First Nations funding so that "critical needs" such as housing and infrastructure can be met.

"Our people have suffered long enough," Bellegarde said in the letter.

Make-shift wood stoves

Fire hazards often peak during the winter months in isolated First Nations where most families rely on wood stoves to heat their homes, Beardy said.

Community leaders in Mishkeegogamang First Nation, 320 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, raised concerns about over-crowded and poorly constructed homes after a house fire in February 2014 killed four people, including two  children.
Chantelle Skunk, a mother for four, said she was sleeping in the living room to keep a watchful eye on her wood-burning stove through the night after a fatal fire in Mishkeegogamang First Nation last winter. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

Most of Mishkeegogamang’s homes are equipped with a wood-burning stove that looks like an oil barrel, hooked up to a chimney. There’s a hole on top through which logs can be placed, and a hole at the bottom of the barrel for air intake.

The stove is usually located near the only door to the house, in a shared area such as a kitchen or living room, blocking a safe exit should the fire in the stove get out of control.

The dependence on wood stoves is a "fact of life" in communities with no other affordable heat source, Beardy said.

Funding solutions 

The regional chief said there is a solution to solving the fire safety concerns and saving lives.

"We need to look at our own economic base, a viable economic base," Beardy said. "The only way to make that happen is to make sure we have a share of revenues coming from our lands and resources — resource-revenue sharing with the other levels of government.

"Then we would have greater responsibility and jurisdiction in terms of how we would run our services in our communities to make sure the safety and well-being of our people," he said.

Fund-raising campaign

Meanwhile, a woman from Ajax, Ont., near Toronto, has launched a fund-raising campaign for the family of the children killed in fire at Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.

Jennifer Hartley said she read a news story about the fire and "cannot even imagine having to face this awful tragedy," so she started a gofundme campaign. She said any money raised will be given to the family to cover funeral costs.

On Sunday Hartley said she had raised more than $3,000.