Deadly Pikangikum fire prompts call for inquiry from Ontario First Nations firefighters

In the wake of a deadly house fire that killed six adults and three children in Pikangikum First Nation, the president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society is calling for an inquest into the fatal fires in Canada's indigenous communities.

Fire that killed 9 the latest in a number of deadly house fires in northern Ontario First Nations

Nine people are dead following a house fire in Pikangikum First Nation. The head of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society is calling for an inquest into fire-related deaths in Indigenous communities. (Kyle Peters/Canadian Press)

In the wake of a deadly house fire that killed six adults and three children in Pikangikum First Nation on Tuesday, the president of the Ontario Native Firefighters Society is calling for an inquest into fatal fires in Canada's indigenous communities.

Steve Nolan, who is also the fire chief in Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., told CBC News he wants to see the issue examined more closely.

"A tragedy of this magnitude should not happen in this day and age," he said of the fire in Pikangikum, a community located more than 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont.

"The First Nation communities across Canada are in a bad situation in regards to fire protection."

Nolan added that while many indigenous communities have working agreements with fire services in neighbouring municipalities, that option isn't available to remote, fly-in communities like Pikangikum.

"Why is there a lack of training, why is there a lack of equipment?" he asked. "And why is it so different in the non-Native communities?"

Ontario Provincial Police reported that they, along with the Pikangikum Police Service and the Pikangikum Fire Department responded to the fire at 11:44 p.m. on Tuesday. Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen told CBC News the fire truck never made it to the scene because local roads were filled with mud and clay, due to spring weather.

Late Wednesday afternoon, provincial police said they were still on-scene, and waiting for the arrival of the forensic identification unit, fire marshal investigators and the regional supervising coroner's office.

Nolan, who has been president of the firefighters society for the past nine months, says finding answers to his questions and possible solutions has been challenging, with "roadblock after roadblock after roadblock."

Nolan added that First Nations also have to look at what they can do, but said it's difficult when communities can't collect their own tax revenues.

Still pushing for 'basic services'

A news release put out by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation after the deadly fire in Pikangikum pointed to several others fatal  fires in Nibinamik, Wunnumin Lake, and Mishkeegogamang First Nations over the past five years.

"That's one of the difficult things to accept is the fact that these tragic fires continue to happen in our communities," said NAN's Grand Chief, Alvin Fiddler, adding that First Nations are at a much higher risk when it comes to deadly blazes.

"A lot of our homes do not meet any type of code for example," he said. "There's no drywall [in houses], there's no way for the homes, once they catch on fire for the community to slow down or suppress the fires."

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says it's frustrating that he still has to advocate for 'basic services,' like fire protection. (Josh Lynn/CBC)

Fiddler pointed to steps he said NAN can take with the federal government to help communities in the short-term, like installing smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and proper protection for walls near wood stoves, while working on more permanent solutions like bettering fire suppression and training.

Still, having to advocate for "basic services," like fire protection for remote communities, is frustrating, Fiddler added.

NAN's news release pointed to a 2010 federal study on fire safety on reserves, that found people living in indigenous communities are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than people in the rest of Canada.