The issue of fire prevention on First Nations reserve lands across Canada continues to dominate the collective consciousness of Aboriginal Canada after two more toddlers were lost to a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan due to a dispute over unpaid bills with a nearby non-Aboriginal community.
On Tuesday, February 17th, a two-year old boy and a one-year old girl died in an early morning blaze at the First Nation west of Meadow Lake. RCMP said officers were dispatched around 1:30 a.m. to the Maka Sahgaiehcan reserve where they found the house engulfed in flames. They said a man, who had gone to the home and found it on fire, came out carrying two small children. Two year-old Harley Cheenanow and his 18-month-old sister Haley had been home with their grandmother when the fire started. The grandmother managed to get out of the house, and although the children’s father arrived in time to carry them out, it was too late, and the children didn’t survive.
The First Nation has had a working fire truck for several years but has never used it. The truck isn’t properly equipped, and no crew had ever been trained to use it. Makwa Sahgaiehcan Chief Richard Ben said the First Nation usually depends on volunteer firefighters from the nearby village of Loon Lake, which is generally responsible for emergency services in the area. However, a dispute over unpaid bills (nearly $3,400) led to a decision not to send firefighters.
Volunteer fire chief Larry Heon of Loon Lake said they got an automated call about the fire Tuesday morning, but his crew did not attend the scene. Heon said the First Nation had sent a letter cancelling a contract with the village for fire services last year. The First Nation, however, said there was previously a dispute over how much the band owed the village over firefighting services. Laurie Lehoux, who has worked as the village administrator since 2012, said the issue of unpaid bills has been ongoing for at least a year. Between March and May 2014, the Loon Lake fire department attended calls to the First Nation for brush and structure fires. By September, Lehoux said the village hadn’t received its fees, despite calls and notes to the First Nation.
An agreement between the village and the First Nation was reached in January 2013 that outlined the costs for attending fires. On January 30, 2015, the fire department sent a letter to the First Nation saying it was over three months behind on payments. In that letter, the fire department said it would no longer respond to any fires until its account was paid.
But Chief Ben said he doesn’t recall signing any contract and said the First Nation always pays the fire department after the call was finished. “It was more or less, they come and we pay them and that was it,” he said. RCMP were they only first responders to attend the scene. “It’s a big big tragedy for us, especially the two children,” said Ben in a CBC interview. “In a way, those kids are like our kids, and I couldn’t help but cry.”
The decision not to attend the fire has fueled tension between the two communities and created a debate in Ottawa over the issue of fire prevention funding to First Nations’ reserves. Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Makwa Sahgaiehcan, like all First Nations, gets sufficient funding for fire services, but it’s up to band officials to decide how the money is spent. Saskachewan’s child advocate Bob Pringle said too many children have died in fires on reserves lately, and Aboriginal and government leaders need to get their act together and address the problem. “The issues have to be addressed, or there’ll be a next time and a next time and a next time,” said Pringle in a Canadian Press interview. “Adults, figure it out; it’s not rocket science.” Five children died in house fires on Saskachewan First Nations’ reserves last year, and a ten-year-old boy and his adult sister perished in a burning home on the English River First Nation last month. Pringle said he is writing a letter to provincial, federal, and Aboriginal leaders to meet and work on solutions.
Aboriginal leaders and critics have pointed to poverty, outdated and crowded housing and lack of fire prevention measures as causes for widespread house fires on reserves. Eric Sylvestre, head of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council representing First Nations of the area, has ordered an inventory of fire services on the reserves of his group. It’s time for action, Sylvestre says, not “to argue about funding and placing blame.”
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) plans to establish a new co-operative to oversee technical and emergency services on all of the province’s First Nations. Interim FSIN leader Chief Kimberly Johnathan made the announcement at a news conference in Prince Albert. “The co-operative will enable First Nations, through their tribal councils, to benefit from best practices and experience in technical service program delivery,” she said. The co-operative would be responsible for dealing with the provincial government on matters relating to technical and emergency services. “Once the tribal council’s technical services co-op is established, the federal and provincial governments will have an entity to work with on a government to government basis,” she added.
Jonathan said the co-operative would be managed by member First Nations and tribal councils and would oversee areas such as fire protection, water quality, housing codes, community standards, and emergency management. Jonathan said the proposal will be presented to Saskatchewan chiefs at the FSIN’s general assembly in May. They hope to have the specifics ready by June and have the co-op fully functional by next spring.
Jonathan noted the FSIN was recently informed that the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Saskatchewan have negotiated a bilateral agreement for emergency management on reserves, without the participation of Saskatchewan First Nations. She called for those discussions to end until First Nations are included, and for any money given to the province to be transferred to the FSIN instead, to be used for the proposed co-op. “The FSIN executive council is demanding that the government of Saskatchewan and the government of Canada cease and desist all discussions that would see $10 million of Indian money transferred to the province, and redirect those resources to the development and implementation of a tribal council technical services co-operative,” said Jonathan.