Monias Fiddler says time is moving slowly for the Sandy Lake First Nation as the community feels the immense weight from the loss of three children in a house fire last month.
Grant Meekis, 9; Remi Meekis, 6; and Wilfred Fiddler, 4, died when their home was engulfed in flames on the Oji-Cree First Nation in northern Ontario. Their parents and three other siblings survived the blaze.
“I was able to function and do the work that I need to do, but it still weighs heavy on everybody. Everybody is carrying that burden,” said Fiddler, who is Sandy Lake’s executive director and is not directly related to the children.
Similar loss and grief is being felt in southern Alberta where three people, including a six-year-old boy, from the Siksika Nation were killed in a fire last weekend.
Fatal fires are far too common on reserves, experts say, and could be prevented. They say dedicated funding for Indigenous-led education and prevention programs, as well as smoke detectors in every home on reserves, could make all the difference.
“The silver bullet really is that First Nations communities need to have the means, ability and capacity to address the problems within each community,” Blaine Wiggins, executive director of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, said from Williams Lake, B.C.
A Statistics Canada study found First Nations people living on reserves were 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people. It also found First Nations people were four times more likely to be hospitalized because of a fire-related injury.
The problem is complex. The high number of fires is linked to insufficient housing, inadequate access to firefighting services and scarce funding to maintain the ones that do exist, Wiggins said.
An Indigenous fire marshals service could ensure that buildings on reserves were to code and with fire prevention tools like sprinklers, Wiggins suggested. It could also educate people about ways to stay safe.
An emailed statement from Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu’s office pointed to $33.8 million for on-reserve fire services in the past five years, as well as to funding for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada, but said more needs to be done.
“We will continue to work in partnership with Indigenous communities and organizations to improve fire safety, make investments in housing and other infrastructure, and support the safety and well-being of all residents on reserve,” it said.
Sandy Lake officials have said that a lack of adequate water lines and equipment prevented crews from using hydrants, which hampered firefighting efforts.
“Our volunteers did all they could with what they had,” Chief Delores Kakegamic has said. “We should have the same level of support as anyone else in Canada. Lives are at stake.”
Fiddler said the community, where many people use wood stoves and chimneys, has self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters, but there was no oxygen available for the devices.
Those who run the First Nation’s fire prevention program are often pulled away by other duties because the reserve’s resources are so stretched, he said.
A report by the chief coroner of Ontario last year found that First Nations children under the age of 10 had a fire-related mortality rate 86 times greater than non-First Nations children.
The report found poor housing conditions and a lack of fire and building codes to be significant issues. Most of the fires it investigated – 86 per cent – had either no or non-operational smoke alarms in homes.
“That should be an alarm bell,” said Len Garis, director of research for the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council Project, in Vancouver.
“We need an aggressive, comprehensive … initiative that will distribute smoke alarms in First Nations communities in Canada. And we need that immediately.”
Garis said a campaign in British Columbia in 2012 resulted in 20,000 smoke alarms being sent to First Nations. The fire death rate went to zero and only began to rise again in 2019, Garis said, because the program was discontinued.
He’s also concerned that there is no national code that enforces fire safety standards on reserves.
Nicolas Moquin, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, said chiefs and councils have the authority to write bylaws to adopt provincial or national fire building codes on reserves.
The department is partnering with the Assembly of First Nations and professional fire protection organizations to develop a renewed fire protection strategy, he said. That could include ways to increase the use of fire and building codes on reserves.
As the Sandy Lake community continues to mourn the young victims, Fiddler said he has to keep believing changes will come to prevent more tragedies.
“We keep pushing through. We ask for prayers all the time.”