Child advocate calls on First Nations, Ottawa to make fire safety a priority

The call came in response to the deaths of two children in a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation

LOON LAKE, Sask. – Saskatchewan’s child advocate says too many children have died in fires on reserves and aboriginal and government leaders need to get their act together.

Bob Pringle says children have a right to be safe in their homes.

“The issues have to be addressed or there’ll be a next time and a next time and a next time,” Pringle said Friday. “Adults, figure it out — it’s not rocket science.”

Pringle was responding to the latest tragedy in the province: the deaths of two children in a house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.

Two-year-old Harley Cheenanow and his 18-month-old sister, Haley, had been home with their grandmother when the fire started early Tuesday. The grandmother managed to get out of the house and, although the children’s father had arrived in time to carry them out, they didn’t survive.

RCMP were the only first responders that showed up to help.

The reserve has had a working fire truck for several years but has never used it. It isn’t properly equipped and no crew had ever been trained to use it.

The band had hired the volunteer fire department in a neighbouring village of Loon Lake, but was cut off services after the village said the band stopped paying its bills. The fire chief has said he got a call about the fire, but didn’t respond.

The decision has fuelled tension between the two communities and created debate in Ottawa about funding to reserves. Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has said Makwa Sahgaiehcan, like all other reserves, gets sufficient funding for fire services and it’s up to band officials to decide how the money is spent.

Pringle said the finger-pointing must stop. And he’s writing all sides a letter asking them to meet and work on solutions.

“We’ve kind of lost the focus on the children,” he said. “When we know there are systemic issues that continue to result in children dying, that says to me, ‘You know, do we really value children? Are their needs on the front burner?'”

Critics have pointed to poverty, outdated and overcrowded housing and a lack of fire prevention education as causes for fires on reserves.

Five children died in fires on Saskatchewan First Nations last year, Pringle said. Last month, a 10-year-old boy and his adult sister were unable to get out of a burning home on the English River First Nation.

Eric Sylvestre, chief of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council that represents Makwa Sahgaiehcan and other First Nations in the area, has ordered an inventory of fire services on the reserves. He also met Thursday with an Aboriginal Affairs official and asked that more be done to ensure they have what they need.

It’s time for action, Sylvestre said, not “to argue about funding and placing of blame.”

The office of the province’s fire commissioner said investigators are still trying to determine the cause of Tuesday’s fire.

Kent Stewart, Saskatchewan’s chief coroner, has said a decision will then be made about whether to hold an inquest into the deaths. He said no inquest has ever been held into a child’s death in a fire on a Saskatchewan reserve.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.