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CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: On many unprotected First Nations, fire safety means nothing more than stand back

Two children died in this house fire on the Ermineskin Reserve in Alberta in April 1999. or Indigenous people who live on a reserve, the chances of dying in a house fire are 10.4 times higher than anywhere else in the country.
Two children died in this house fire on the Ermineskin Reserve in Alberta in April 1999. or Indigenous people who live on a reserve, the chances of dying in a house fire are 10.4 times higher than anywhere else in the country. - Ian Jackson/Postmedia

They are sitting ducks — the innocent Indigenous children, of course, but also their parents or, as in the case of the latest awful (and probably preventable) house fire on a First Nation, their long-time foster mother.

Dead in an early-morning blaze last Thursday on the remote Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation are Geraldine Chapman and her daughter, Shyra Shadara Taylor Bella Chapman and three of the children she had fostered, Angel Kenisha McKay, Karl Jovon Cutfeet and Hailey Ocean Jenna Chapman.

The youngsters were respectively six, 12, nine and seven.

As KI Chief Donny Morris said in a Monday press release, “Geraldine raised her adopted children as her very own with the mutual consent of the three families involved … the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug recognized these children as her own.

“It is important to understand, however, that this devastating tragedy has directly impacted four families and, as a result, extends throughout the community as a whole.”

Consider how inured Indigenous people are to the deadly toll of the fires on their reserves. Morris’s spokesman, Sam McKay, told Paola Loriggio of the Canadian Press in a story published last Friday that the community has a fire truck that doesn’t work, a fire hall that wasn’t finished and no fire hoses.

“When there’s a fire,” McKay said, “you pretty much stand around and look at the building burn and make sure there’s nobody there. At this time, we were very unfortunate that we lost five people.”

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

So many of those who live on First Nations, not all of them remote either, live in overcrowded, substandard houses, without all the protections that urban Canadians take for granted — smoke alarms that are installed and checked yearly to make sure they’re working; fire departments to nag residents about making a fire plan; actual firefighters who will answer the call for help, arrive in a timely way and have the equipment to put out the fire and rescue those who may be inside.

 Undated file photo of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, where a woman and four children were killed in a house fire.
Undated file photo of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, where a woman and four children were killed in a house fire.

 

The Ontario Fire Code and the Ontario Building Code don’t apply to First Nations. Fire protection isn’t even mandatory.

Add to that the fact that many in the north — KI is about 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay — on isolated reserves rely on generators and diesel fuel for heat, and you have a recipe for disaster.

And disaster is just what First Nations routinely get.

Two years ago, two fine Toronto Star reporters, Alicja Siekierska and Jesse Winter, did a special project on the outrageous death toll from fire on Canadian First Nations.

According to a 2007 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. report, for Indigenous people who live on a reserve, the chances of dying in a house fire are 10.4 times higher than anywhere else in the country.

As a confidential Ontario community safety report noted a few years ago, the fire death rate in Ontario on First Nations land is “extremely high.”

Where from 1996-2005, the average fire death rate per million people in Ontario was 8.6, on First Nations land for the same period, the fire death rate was 72.3 per million people.

Provincial fire protection legislation — the Fire Protection and Prevention Act — doesn’t apply to First Nations. The Ontario Fire Marshal, for example, has no jurisdiction over federal lands, and First Nations are within federal jurisdiction. The federal government has the lead on fire safety.

The OFM must be invited in, and usually conducts fire investigations only in fatal fires, as indeed it is doing now at KI.

Between 1995 and 2010, the OFM tracked 69 fatalities on Ontario First Nations.

As usual, what prevails is a bureaucratic nightmare — with Ottawa, the provinces and then First Nation governments battling over who’s responsible for what — with the predictable result that almost nothing gets done and almost nothing changes.

In 2010, the federal government under Stephen Harper stopped tracking the fire death toll on First Nations, ostensibly to “ease the reporting burden.”

First Nation leaders and the Aboriginal Firefighters Association have been calling for more than five years for the establishment of a First Nations Fire Marshal’s Office and for regulating how building and fire codes — surely the first baby step — can apply to First Nations.

There’s still no Indigenous Fire Marshal, but this year, Ottawa has allocated about $32 million to “improving emergency response on reserve” in the budget.

If only Geraldine and the poor kids had managed to hang on another couple of years, KI might have had a working fire truck, and hoses, and firefighters to respond — or maybe even a fraction of the life-saving preventative things, like smoke alarms and inspections and building standards and the like, that little kids and their folks in the rest of the country have.

It is, as with so much of the way Indigenous people are expected to live, outrageous. How it is they have not risen up in rage is a mystery.

• Email: cblatchford@postmedia.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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