Thunder Bay

Indigenous leaders call for coroner's inquest into First Nations fire deaths

Indigenous leaders in northwestern Ontario are calling for a coroner's inquest into fire safety in First Nations in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory.

House fire in Pikangikum in 2016 killed 9 people including a five-month-old girl

Nine people died in a house fire on Pikangikum First Nation in 2016. (Kyle Peters/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous leaders in northern Ontario are calling for a coroner's inquest into fire safety in First Nations in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory.

The request comes on the one-year anniversary of a house fire in Pikangikum, a remote community more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., that killed nine people, including three children under the age of five.

"It is unacceptable that house fires continue to claim lives in our communities," NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler was quoted as saying in a written release issued Thursday morning.

"We are calling for an inquest into fire safety in memory of all those we have lost in fires across NAN territory over the years, and to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again."

First Nations firefighters in Ontario have also called for an inquest as has Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.

A federal study done in 2010 found that people living on-reserve are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than in the rest of Canada.

"It's something that, I think, we need to look into further," Fiddler told CBC News, adding that he wants to see "solutions that will hopefully prevent fires in the future."
Pikangikum is a remote community located 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay and is only accessible by air. (Canadian Press)

In NAN territory, fatal fires have also occurred in Nibinamik, Wunnumin Lake, and Mishkeegogamang First Nations over the past several years.

"What we hope with this inquest that we're asking for is to be able to look at the broader systemic issues that may be contributing to these house fires," Fiddler said, referencing the inquest into seven Indigenous students who died while attending school in Thunder Bay.

According to Thursday's release, Nishnawbe Aski Nation officials said they've sent a letter to the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario stating that multiple deaths appeared to have happened from a common cause, and that examination of those issues would advance public safety.

"Overcrowding, unsafe building standards and a lack of firefighting equipment continues to put lives at risk in Pikangikum and communities across NAN territory," the community's Chief, Dean Owen was quoted as saying in NAN's release.

"We fully support an inquest to help prevent similar tragedies."

Another initiative was launched by NAN in 2016 calling for a long-term plan to address fire protection and safety in its territory. Amber's Fire Safety Campaign was named after Amber Strang, a five-month-old infant, who was the youngest victim in the Pikangikum fire.

NAN officials said any inquest should be synchronized with that campaign.
Hundreds of people gathered a day after the fatal house fire for a candlelight vigil on Pikangikum First Nation. (Courtesy Kyle Peters)

Ontario's Chief Coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, confirmed to CBC News that he's received the request from NAN and that it's something he's taking seriously.

"Clearly these deaths are tragedies, and I want to express my condolences," he said. "The resolution quite clearly illustrates in the First Nations' view, and I share those views, a number of systemic issues."

Huyer said he now will consider next steps, including whether an inquest is the best way to develop recommendations, adding that there are other options, like a review panel tailored speficially to the issue.

He said he plans to meet with the Ontario Fire Marshall and Indigenous leaders about the Nishnawbe Aski Nation request.