By Amanda Rabski-McColl
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In the wake of a fatal fire in Peawanuck, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) says they’re supporting the remote First Nation, but Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus disagrees.
A 10-year-old girl was killed and a family was left homeless in the Jan. 28 fire in the small community located about 30 kilometres south of Hudson Bay. The tragedy has sparked a lot of conversation about resources and funding on fire services for Weenusk First Nation.
Funding and programs focused on fire safety have been in the community and there are projects in the works to shore up the systems in place, according to the ISC statement.
“They need to say they dropped the ball, and a horrible accident occurred,” said Angus about the ISC’s claims. “They need to say we’re going to fix this and we’re going to work with the community and make sure that they’re safe.”
While the ISC says things like the Amber Fire safety campaign, which provided 187 alarms to the community in 2017, have been provided, Angus says the community still lacks support for basic needs like fire extinguishers.
The community has procured a fire truck to replace the 1996 model currently serving the area, but its delivery is not expected until March 2023. It also doesn’t have a place to be stored when it reaches Peawanuck.
A proposal was submitted to ISC in November on behalf of the community by the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC) to build a fire hall to house the new truck.
The application is being reviewed.
“They need to commit to building that fire hall and that’s something they haven’t been willing to do until now, there has to be training opportunities, and we need full emergency services in Peawanuck,” said Angus. “That’s what the community is asking for and that’s what the government has to deliver.”
ISC said funding for the current building being used to store the firefighting equipment was increased in 2022/2023 from $5,908 to $21,619, but Angus says there is a need for a fire hall that can house the needed equipment and the new fire truck the community has purchased.
“There’s no point having a fire truck in a community that goes to -60C, if it’s not a proper building,” said Angus. “It has to be a heated building.”
In his meetings with the community, Mushkegowuk council and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) leadership, Angus said the message is clear.
“The community is traumatized by this and they need help,” he said. “The ISC needs to come to the table and make sure this never happens again.”
He had written to the Minister of Indigenous Services in 2021 detailing the lack of equipment in Peawanuck and the danger of the situation.
“They were asked to do this in 2021, and they didn’t,” said Angus. “The community was left in this terrible position because of it.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum and the executive council released a statement offering their condolences and support for the family. They’re also drawing attention to the disproportionate number of fire deaths in First Nations communities.
“Our prayers have been with the family, first responders, and the entire Peawanuck community since we learned about this tragedy,” reads the statement. “We join them in mourning the passing of this beautiful child whose young life was taken under the most tragic and heartbreaking of circumstances.”
The NAN statement goes on to say that First Nation children under 10 have a fire-related mortality rate 86 times greater than non-First Nation children in a report by Ontario Chief Coroner in 2021. First Nation people living on-reserve are also five times more likely to die in a fire, according to a report by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council.
The community continues to rally around the Wabano family, who was affected by the fire. A GoFundMe has raised $37,258 of its updated $50,00 goal.
RELATED: Support pouring in after fatal fire in Peawanuck
The Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA), Ornge air ambulance service, Mushkegowuk Council, and Payukotayno Child and Family Services are offering support to the family and the community, including additional medical staff, and mental health supports.
Crisis lines are available for anyone in need of help.
A 24-hour crisis line has been set up at 1-866-925-4419, the Hope for Wellness Help Line is available at 1-855-242-3310 or the Nishnawbe Aski Nation HOPE Line is available for calls or texts at 1-844-NAN-HOPE (626-4673).
Amanda Rabski-McColl is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with
TIMMINSTODAY.COM. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding