March 30, 2016 - 2:30 PM
PIKANGIKUM, Ont. - Nine members of one family, including three children under five, have died in a house fire in a remote northern Ontario First Nations community that is no stranger to human tragedy.
A resident of the Pikangikum First Nation who did not want to be identified said three generations of a family died in the blaze that destroyed their home late Tuesday.
The resident identified the victims as Dean and Annette Strang, their son Gilbert, their daughter Faith, Faith's three young children and two common-law partners.
Ontario Provincial Police Const. Diana Cole said the fire broke out late Tuesday in the remote community near the Manitoba-Ontario boundary that has been plagued by suicides.
The cause of the fire is under investigation and police remain on the scene, Cole said.
Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation which represents First Nations in northern Ontario, said he spoke Wednesday with Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen, who sounded exhausted.
"The shock of losing so many people in one tragic event is overwhelming," said Fiddler. "There's a tremendous loss and overwhelming grief that all of us are feeling."
Fiddler 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.
"We continue to be engaged with provincial and indigenous leadership on how to build better infrastructure, how to secure the future for indigenous youth and their communities," he said during a visit to Edmonton.
"This is not just about the moral, right thing to do. It's about investing in our shared future in this country."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne took to Twitter to offer her condolences to the community.
"My thoughts are with the First Nations community of #Pikangikum and those who lost loved ones in last night's devastating house fire," Wynne tweeted.
Carolyn Bennett, minister of indigenous and northern affairs, issued a statement Wednesday extending "heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies" to the victims' families and the community.
"Officials of my department are reaching out to the First Nation to offer our condolences and to identify any support that we can provide to meet the community's needs," Bennett said.
Bennett also said Health Minister Jane Philpott would be working with local and First Nation leaders, along with the province, to provide a trauma team and to determine what is else will be needed to support the healing process.
Those familiar with the remote fly-in community say the fire is shocking, but not especially surprising.
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, but visitors say that awareness has done little to bring about real change.
Joseph Magnet, an Ottawa-based law professor who has represented the community, said he has visited all of the overcrowded homes in the community.
"You're dealing with very, very small houses in which you will sometimes have as many as 15 people sharing a single room without toilet facilities, using a bucket, without running water in the house, and without proper cooking facilities," he said. "It's a very, very sorry situation that really should have urgent attention."
The homes "wouldn't meet anybody's fire code regulations," Magnet said.
Local MP Robert Nault said discussions were ongoing about sending in support to help deal with "the whole issue of mourning."
"It affects everyone in the community whenever there's a tragedy like this or a suicide," he said. "This is a community that's had a history of suicides ... and tragic situations, so this community has been in a constant crisis for a number of years."
Nault said he was to meet Thursday with two health ministers to discuss what he called "the crisis in the North."
"Not specifically about this incident, but obviously to talk about mental health, health-care delivery, the suicides," he said. "Pikangikum has the largest suicide rate of any community in the western world ... I think over 400 in the last couple of decades."
The community has also been grappling with a long-standing water contamination issue, Magnet said. A federal government website indicates Pikangikum has been under a boil water advisory since January 2006.
Kyle Peters, the First Nation's education director, described the mood in the community as "extremely sad. It's probably one of the most difficult times."
"I'm trying to set up travel for immediate family affected by the loss. Some as far as Alberta, some as far as London, Ont., and even Moosonee, I believe," Peters said.
Crisis teams were being dispatched from neighbouring communities, he added.
Pikangikum has also been dealing with education issues for years. Its school burnt down in 2007, and was replaced only by portables.
And in 2012, the community closed down almost all of its classes after most of the non-local teachers left because of mould growing in their residences.
At the same time, young people in the community have been struggling with addictions and poverty, resulting in numerous youth suicides over the years.
— By Michelle McQuigge and Peter Cameron in Toronto, with files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton
By the numbers:
— 43: percentage of First Nation sites in Canada with "little or no fire protection"
— 56: percentage of First Nation sites in Canada with "adequate" fire services
— 49: percentage of First Nations that depend on neighbouring municipality for fire protection
— 10.4: death rate among First Nations compared to the rest of Canada
— 2.5: fire injury rate among First Nations compared to the rest of Canada
SOURCE: Indigenous Affairs report: "Factors Influencing Insurance Coverage in First Nations Communities," April 2011
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016