A house fire Friday in Sandy Lake, a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is said to have claimed the lives of several children, Nishnawbe Aski Nation said.
Bobby Narcisse, a deputy chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in the north of the province, told CBC News that the fire occurred in the early hours of Friday morning.
“The entire leadership is in shock. Community members are currently in shock with the loss of these children,” Narcisse said in an interview Friday afternoon.
“These are, sadly to say, the realities of life in the remote north,” he added. “We need to ensure there is proper infrastructure and investment to help our First Nation communities cope with these tragic crises.”
The Northwestern Crime Unit of the Nishnawbe Aski Police Forces is investigating. They are aided by Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal and the Ontario Provincial Police Identification Unit – both were dispatched to Sandy Lake Friday morning.
Sandy Lake is located about 600 kilometers northwest of Thunder Bay.
Our thoughts are with the community in the Sandy Lake First Nation after a house fire resulted in multiple deaths today. @ONFireMarshal sends staff to assist in the investigation. https://t.co/oN6GXbCTuQ
Police would not say how many deaths or ages there are, but it was too early to confirm that information.
Deputy head chef thanks first responders
Narcisse said NAN has been in close contact with the leadership in Sandy Lake and is offering all the support they can offer as the community grieves together.
The fire started shortly after midnight, Narcisse said, and emergency services were on the scene braving frigid temperatures that plunged below -30°C.
“We heard the exploits and that these individuals were there and doing their best to really help in these very tragic circumstances.”
Condolences, thoughts and prayers for Sandy Lake have been shared on social media.
I am absolutely heartbroken to learn of the deaths of three children in Sandy Lake First Nation as a result of a recent house fire. This will be an extremely difficult time for the community as they mourn the loss of these young people.
“We send prayers and condolences to Sandy Lake First Nation as we mourn today’s tragic home fire,” tweeted RoseAnne Archibald, national head of the Assembly of First Nations.
Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Indigenous Services, tweeted: “It absolutely pains me to learn that three children in Sandy Lake First Nation have died as a result of a recent house fire. This will be an extremely difficult time for the community as they mourn the loss of these young people.”
Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, Conservative Provincial Secretary Greg Rickford and Federal Member of Parliament Eric Melillo also tweeted condolences.
Multiple fatal home fires in recent years
“We are always in an ongoing state of crisis response,” said Narcisse, adding that there have been many devastating fires in remote First Nations in the NAN area of northern Ontario.
- In 2011, a fire in Nibinamik First Nation claimed the lives of young boys, ages two and three, and injured a third. Two years later, a fire in Wunnumin Lake killed two children and their 21-year-old aunt.
- A fire in Mishkeegogamang in 2014 resulted in the death of a mother, her two young daughters and her cousin.
- Nine people died in a house fire in Pikangikum in 2016. The youngest, Amber Strang, was five months old.
- A fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug in 2019 claimed the life of a family of five.
The Pikangikum fire led to the creation of Amber’s Fire Safety Campaign by the NAN Chiefs-in-Assembly in May 2016 to promote fire safety, awareness and improve firefighting services in the 49 NAN First Nations.
A report on fire deaths in First Nations was completed in the summer of 2021 by Ontario’s chief medical officer.
Among the findings, it found that First Nations children under the age of 10 had the highest fire-related death rate, 86 times higher than non-First Nation children in Ontario. The highest number of fire fatalities occurred in year-round communities with no road access.
Narcisse said much work has been done in recent years to improve fire safety and prevent unnecessary tragedies.
However, he added: “There is still much more to be done.”