Pikangikum First Nation in mourning after blaze kills 3 children, 6 adults
Cause of fire on remote reserve in northwestern Ontario still undetermined
As a remote northwestern Ontario community mourns the loss of nine of its people in a fatal fire, Ontario's Regional Chief Isadore Day says the tragedy is the result of third-world living conditions experienced by Canada's aboriginal population.
"Poverty and the state of our communities have been ignored and is literally a quiet crisis killing our people and it must end now," Day said in a statement.
Day is calling for a coroner's inquest into the deadly fire.
Community members in Pikangikum First Nation held a candle-light vigil Wednesday night to honour and pray for the people who perished in a house fire late Tuesday night.
The vigil gathered mourners who were trying to reconcile the loss of three children and six adults, in a blaze that saw the three-bedroom home burned to the ground. A resident of the Pikangikum First Nation who did not want to be identified, said three generations of a family died in the blaze.
Pikangikum First Nation Chief Dean Owen said police and neighbours were unable to put out the fire, as Pikangikum has no fire department and no running water in much of the community.
He said the First Nation's one fire truck has to fill its tank in the centre of town, but this time the truck couldn't make it to the scene anyway because of the road conditions.
"This time of year in the spring time, our roads are pretty bad. It's all mud. It's all clay. Vehicles, [can't go much] faster than 20, 30 kilometres per hour on our roads."
Neighbouring First Nations have been offering support and resources to the community, said Owen.
Trauma team arrives
Alvin Fiddler, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which represents First Nations in northern Ontario, said the shock of losing so many people in one tragic event is overwhelming.
Fiddler also described Pikangikum as "ground zero" when it comes to infrastructure requirements such as housing, access to clean drinking water and the capacity to fight fires.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences to the community and said his government will work to improve conditions for First Nations people.
My heart goes out to those affected by the tragic fire in Pikangikum First Nation. We stand ready with support as the community copes.—@JustinTrudeau
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a statement that her department is reaching out to the First Nation to offer condolences and to identify any support the community needs.
A spokeswoman for Bennett said Wednesday evening that a trauma team had arrived in the community.
Deplorable living conditions in Pikangikum have been the subject of public debate for decades. The community's struggles with poverty and suicide rates have been well-documented.
Joseph Magnet, an Ottawa-based law professor who has represented the community, said the homes in Pikangikum "wouldn't meet anybody's fire code regulations."
In a news release issued by Nishnawbe Aski Nation Wednesday, Fiddler said its "communities are overwhelmed with suicide at an epidemic level, a NAN-wide health crisis and several states of emergency. These fire-related fatalities are stretching their limited resources to the breaking point. People are dying from overcrowding, unsafe building standards and a lack of basic firefighting equipment, and more lives are at risk."
Kyle Peters, the First Nation's education director, said crisis teams were being dispatched from neighbouring communities.
Peters said Wednesday's vigil was a sad affair, with people lighting floating lanterns and stringing candles around the fire scene.
"A lot of sadness and tears and people trying to realize that it actually happened," Peters said of the mood at the vigil.
He said other members of the victims' families are due to arrive in Pikangikum later Thursday afternoon. Funeral and memorial arrangements likely won't be made until next week, he added.
Ontario Provincial Police Const. Diana Cole said the investigation into the cause of the fire, which remains undetermined, is being conducted by the OPP, Office of the Fire Marshal and the regional coroner.
Pikangikum is only accessible by air.
A candle light vigil at the sight that took 9 lives, please keep praying for our community <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Pikangikum?src=hash">#Pikangikum</a> <a href="https://t.co/Na9Jftsi37">pic.twitter.com/Na9Jftsi37</a>—@wpeters27
With files from The Canadian Press