One dead, two still unaccounted for after house fire in Pikangikum First Nation

'Never felt so hopeless'

A remote northwestern Ontario First Nation lacked the facilities to extinguish a house fire that left one dead and two others unaccounted for, the local chief said as she called for government help in bolstering fire services.

Shirley Lynne Keeper of Pikangikum First Nation said the community's two fire trucks were frozen when the blaze erupted on Wednesday, adding there is no adequate building to shelter the vehicles.

Keeper did not provide the names of the dead or missing residents, but noted the fire comes less than seven years after another deadly blaze that killed a family of nine in 2016.

She said Pikangikum is "devastated" after losing more residents to yet another house fire.

"We have never felt so hopeless," Keeper said in a statement issued on Friday. "Our ability to fight structural fires has not improved since 2016. ... We are still investigating this tragic fire and we ask everyone to pray for the family and our community."

A spokesperson for the fly-in First Nation, located more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., said Pikangikum Peacekeepers and Ontario Provincial Police are still holding the scene as they look for the two missing people and work to contain the fire, which has flared up a few times since Wednesday.

Keeper said residents were still grappling with the overwhelming grief that set in after the deadly 2016 fire.

Dean and Annette Strang, their son Gilbert, their daughter Faith, Faith's three children and two common-law partners died in that fire. All three children were under the age of five.

"Many community members lost family. This has affected us greatly. We never wanted to see this happen again," Keeper said in the statement.

Last month, a 10-year-old girl also died after a house fire on the Weenusk First Nation, a northern community in Peawanuck, Ont.

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a group representing 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, said at the time the community's newly purchased fire truck was still stuck in Winnipeg awaiting shipment when the fire broke out.

NAN's Deputy Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum said several member communities have had to grapple with deadly house fires over the past decade.

That includes Sandy Lake First Nation, where three children died in a fire last January. Mishkeegogamang First Nation, meanwhile, lost four residents in 2014, including two young children.

A 2021 Statistics Canada report commissioned by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council found First Nations people living on reserves are about 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous Canadians.

Keeper lamented the lack of government progress in addressing fire-related safety concerns in the years since the last fatal blaze and called for immediate action to support the community of about 4,000 people.

"The government’s response to date has been unacceptable. No more words, we need action," Keeper said.

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to request for comment.

More Canada News