In the early morning of February 17th, two children died in a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. Two-year old Harley and 18-month old Haley Cheenanow were asleep when a fire overtook their house and when no fire department showed up to fight it, their father was the one who carried their bodies out as he tried to rescue them. Throughout this ordeal, the volunteer fire department of nearby Loon Lake did not respond to the fire because the First Nation allegedly owed the village just over $3,000. This story represents the very real crisis that reserves and Native communities across Canada are facing when it comes to basic infrastructure, security and their well-being and the failure of the government of Canada to solve them.
This story is also not a new one for reserves in Saskatchewan. In January, a young woman and a 10-year-old boy died in a house fire on the English River First Nation and in December 2014, a woman and her 10-year-old grandson died in a blaze at Ahtahkakoop First Nation. The same can be said for reserves across the country. In October 2014, the poor firefighting capability on reserves in Manitoba was given the spotlight when a baby, Errabella Harper, died in a similarly fire on the St. Theresa Point First Nation.
These examples pair up with the official data on fires on reserves. According to a 2010 Strategy on Fire Protection by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), deaths from fires on First Nations reserves are 10 times higher than in similar off-reserve communities and fires, in general, are twice as common on reserves than off.
Fire services are not just about fighting fires, but also about applying codes, home safety, prevention programs and general awareness, and many First Nations would be placed in a difficult situation under the current system. The majority of homes on First Nations reserves do not meet codes and there is no funding to improve them. With the current crisis of overcrowding of homes on reserves across the country, there is no other option for families and communities.
The crisis of fires on reserves is part of the overall crisis facing reserve life and comes down to government neglect. We are witnessing the same neglect that caused the evacuation of Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. If these communities had the infrastructure and resources, so many lives would not be lost to something so preventable. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indians released a statement emphasizing this point in the current case, 'Makway Sahgaiehcan, like other First Nations across [Saskatchewan], does not receive sufficient funding to cover even two fire calls per year from the municipal volunteer fire department. Unless there is a significant increase in funding, there is no way First Nations can meet any kind of fire safety codes and regulations.'
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