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Two Kids Died in a House Fire on a First Nations Reserve as Canadian Firefighters Stayed Put Over an Unpaid Bill

The deaths of two kids over an unpaid bill highlights the horrible state of fire prevention on Canada's reserves.
February 19, 2015, 9:12pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Early Tuesday morning before the sun rose, a house filled with smoke and flame, eventually burning to the ground on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan. A call to 9-1-1 at 1:30 AM brought RCMP and EMS to the scene but it was too late to save two-year-old Harley and 18-month-old Haley Cheenanow. Their bodies were carried out by their father as RCMP arrived and the two children were pronounced dead on the scene.

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The 9-1-1 call was automatically forwarded to the rural municipality (RM) the First Nation shares a border with, but the mayor of Loon Lake, who is also the volunteer fire chief, hung up the phone and went back to bed. The slight possibility of saving the two young children was ignored because of $3,360.89 in unpaid bills for fire services between the neighboring communities.

This tragedy highlights the wider problem of first protection services on First Nations, where you are ten times more likely to die in a fire than in a neighboring community.

The town of Loon Lake is bordered by farmland, boreal forest, and beautiful lakes. But the border it shares with the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation is more like one between different worlds.

"For two communities who are in such close proximity to each other I would say that the relationship is pretty dysfunctional and has been for a very long time," Loon Lake village administrator Laurie Lehoux told VICE.

That contentious relationship is at the heart of the blame game playing out in the wake of the fatal fire. Loon Lake has said it had a deal to respond to fires on First Nation land for an annual fee of $5,000, which was canceled in favor of a "pay as you go" system beginning in 2013. With the new contract, signed by the chief, payment could be provided up to 30 days after billing. If they weren't paid, services would be suspended.

Lehoux said that the deal was working well enough until a string of grass fires in spring 2014 increased the First Nation's bills significantly. She said after failed attempts to contact the band through the finance director Kurt Shultz and through the band office, the Fire Board—consisting of the mayor, deputy mayor, reeve, and deputy reeve—decided in November to end the services. A letter at the end of January 2015 officially told the First Nation that there would be no more fire response from the RM. A few weeks later the fatal fire would claim the children's lives and the First Nation's Chief Richard Ben would tell inquiring media that he thought they still had a deal with the RM.

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The community's anger is close to boiling over, as a 27-year-old man was arrested on Wednesday morning for threatening Loon Lake's mayor over Facebook. But the adversarial relationship between the two communities is ignoring the larger issue.

"It boils down to a lack of services. We don't get the same funding as everyone else does with the federal government," Band Councillor Dean Mitsuing told local outlet News Talk Radio.

In less than two months, six people have died in house fires on First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan alone. On December 29, Donna Kay, 61, and Teegan Ahenakew, ten, died on the Ahtahkakoop First Nation in a house fire linked to a wood-burning stove. On January 18, Natalia Wolverine, 24, and her little brother Jerome, ten, died in a house fire on the English River First Nation after the First Nation's fire truck broke down while responding to the scene.

"You are ten times more likely to die in a house fire on a First Nation than an RM that's 30 miles away," former Keeseekoose First Nation fire chief Shylo Stevenson said, referencing a 2007 federal study on fire safety on reserves.

Stevenson now runs the Blues Brother consulting business, which works with First Nations to navigate the uncertain and confusing world of fire prevention funding. He started the company after helping to transform the Keeseekoose First Nation's fire services. When he was appointed fire chief in 2001, there was "a pickup truck, four friends, and some shovels in the back." Stevenson said that after watching the local school burn to the ground, the community rallied together and called for media attention to be given to the issue.

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The community fundraised and reallocated money from elsewhere in its budget, trained local volunteers, and eventually bought a pump truck for $200,000. At the time, the federal government provided around $7,000 for their fire protection funding; after pressure from media and First Nations groups it has since gone up to around $10,000. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) had also just started a program where it provided a reimbursement of 50 percent of the cost for the truck and other capital investments into fire safety. For smaller communities, AANDC will provide up to 75 percent reimbursement. Now, Stevenson says, Keeseekoose is the "only First Nation full-time fire department."

Although his is a success story, Stevenson is the first to say that it's no easy feat.

"At the end of the day the fire protection money is not enough," Stevenson told VICE.

An access-to-information request by the Canadian Press shows the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation was given just over $11,000 for fire protection in each of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years. Stevenson says that barely covers the gas to run the fire truck—that is if the First Nation is one of the few to get one. Then the rest of the funds and more can get eaten up just during a week or two in spring, when grass fires are common and unpredictable.

"On a First Nation there [are] no guidelines, no rules, and regulations for anyone to follow so, we are just expected to go fight a house fire in our civilian clothes," he said. "All the money that comes into a First Nation is already spoken for because it's got to be in the budget and going into certain programs. So to invest more money into a fire department, they have to take out from another program and leave that program short, which a lot of First Nations are not comfortable doing."

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Stevenson said there also needs to be training and work to improve relationships between First Nations and neighboring towns and RMs. Many of these issues are included in a federal government five-year strategy to improve on-reserve fire protection, prevention, and suppression. The strategy was launched in 2010, but in an email to VICE News AANDC did not provide any information on improvements, updates, or deadlines for the strategy.

"The health and safety of First Nation communities is a priority; that's why we provide funding to First Nations to support operations and maintenance, fire protection infrastructure and fire protection training on reserve—through which First Nations manage fire protection services on reserve to meet the needs of their communities," according to an emailed statement from AANDC Minister Bernard Valcourt's office.

But on Wednesday in the House of Commons, when Minister Valcourt was questioned by Manitoba Churchill MP Niki Ashton about the lack of funding on First Nations specifically for fire and emergency services, Valcourt claimed she was trying to "score cheap political points over the death of children on a reserve."

"First Nations manage the fire protection services on reserve to meet the need of their communities and we also know… that education and awareness play an integral role in fire safety and that's what we are funding," Valcourt said.

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That's not the world that Stevenson, as a former First Nation fire chief and a consultant, sees.

"It's frustrating in my mind seeing a lot of these provincial departments come into a First Nation just to fight the fire but they won't come out during fire protection week. They won't come offer their services to inspect a rink to help out," he said. "It's like you don't have any rules so we are not going to bother with you."

Thursday morning the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) said that the federal government bears responsibility for the tragedy by deliberately underfunding emergency response programs on reserves.

"The families affected by this tragedy cannot be overlooked and the leadership must be allowed the time required to assist the families in need. Rather than using this tragedy as an opportunity to attack First Nations, the question should be, 'What has to be done to prevent tragedies like this from occurring in the future?'" said FSIN Vice Chief Dutch Lerat in a statement.

"Legislation alone will not solve any of these problems. These services cost money. Unless there is a significant increase in funding, there is no way First Nations can meet any kind of fire safety codes and regulations. The federal government has to meet with First Nations immediately to begin finding solutions rather than unilaterally imposing legislation. We do not want to see any more lives lost."