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Justin Trudeau Urged to Visit Reserve Devastated by Fire That Killed Nine People

For the last week, the remote fly-in community of Pikangikum has been reeling with grief over the loss of three generations in a fire; three children from five-months to four years old and six adults from 24 to 51.

by Rachel Browne
Apr 8 2016, 8:20pm

Pikangikum in 2007. John Woods/The Canadian Press

Nine coffins rest side by side at the front of a church in Pikangikum First Nation reserve in northern Ontario. Nearby, there's boxes of kleenex and a framed photo of each person taken before a fire engulfed their home during the night one week ago.

For the last week, the remote fly-in community of about 2,300 has been reeling with grief over the loss of three generations; three children from five-months to four years old and six adults from 24 to 51. An autopsy performed in Toronto found that all of them died from smoke inhalation.

"It would be difficult to explain in words the anguish, the hurt, looks of people's faces, helplessness. You just feel for them," David Fiddler from nearby Sandy Lake, who went to Pikangikum to offer support, wrote on Facebook on Thursday when the bodies were flown back home.

In line with Ojibwa burial tradition, their dead are buried in family member's yards.

As preparations are underway for the funeral on Sunday, there's mounting pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the community that for years has grappled with a seemingly endless cycle of tragedy. It has one of highest rates of youth suicide in the country, severe problems with addictions, overcrowding to the point where families have to sleep in shifts, and energy shortages. Around 95 percent of the homes there do not have running water.

Over the last week, residents of Pikangikum have posted on social media, and created a change.org petition, urging the prime minister to go to the reserve. "Bring your rubber boots as it is very very muddy and don't expect a smooth ride as our road are filled with potholes," Dean Angellips, who works at the Pikangikum education authority, wrote in a Facebook post. "Come and see first-hand what our living conditions are like."

On Friday, Trudeau was be in Thunder Bay, 300 miles south of Pikangikum, and is scheduled to meet with Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation, which includes Pikangikum. Fiddler, who visited the reserve last week, says he will urge Trudeau to make the trip in the coming days.

Related: A Fire Killed Nine People on a Canadian Reserve With One Fire Truck, But No Water

"During my visit I could tell how tired they are, weary from yet another catastrophe," Fiddler wrote to Trudeau in a letter earlier this week and obtained by VICE News. "I am writing you today, in earnest and anticipation, to invite you to join me on my next visit ... where you will witness a community devastated by loss, hardened by decades of chronic underfunding, yet spirited and courageous enough to move forward toward a better future."

At a press conference in Thunder Bay Friday afternoon, the prime minister offered his condolences to Pikangikum and said he looked forward to connecting with Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen in the near future.

Trudeau spokesperson Cameron Ahmad told VICE News that the prime minister and Chief Owen will likely connect over the phone, but did not know when or where that would take place. Ahmad added that the member of parliament for the region will be attending the funeral and the federal minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs is planning a trip to the community sometime next week.

Trudeau went to La Loche, Saskatchewan to express his condolences a week after the shooting in January that killed four people. The prime minister has repeatedly pledged to improve relations with First Nations communities, and address ongoing health and socioeconomic crises on reserves, including basic necessities such as access to clean water and education.

Trudeau's Thunder Bay visit comes on the last day of an inquest into the mysterious deaths of seven First Nations students who died there from 2000 to 2011. The students were forced to travel hundreds of miles from their reserves in order to attend high school.

Related: They Died Young and Mysteriously — Now We May Finally Know Why

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne