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Fire Safety On First Nations A National Problem

01/27/2014 03:44 EST | Updated 03/29/2014 05:59 EDT
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People living on a First Nations reserve in Canada are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than people in the rest of Canada, according to a 2010 federal study on fire safety on reserves, a sombre figure highlighted by the deaths of two young boys in a northern Saskatchewan fire last week.

The fire in Pelican Narrows, about 120 kilometres northwest of Flin Flon, Man.,​ has drawn more attention to some of the shortfalls in fire protection and prevention on reserves.

Solomon Ballantyne, 10, and his brother, Josiah Ballantyne, 9, died in the fire that also seriously injured a young girl.  

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RCMP said four other people escaped, but the Ballantyne boys did not make it out. Their remains were found by fire investigators the next day.

A funeral for the boys was held in the community on Saturday. 

The boys' father, David Ballantyne, said his children were outgoing youngsters who loved to laugh and had many friends.

"I tried to bring them into this world to be nice people to anybody, to be forgiving," Ballantyne said. "To have a positive outlook on life. That's basically how they were."

It's believed the fire was accidental and may have been sparked by candles in an attic space, though the official cause is still under investigation.

Fire truck in community not working

Chief Peter Beatty of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said the only fire truck on the reserve is over 25 years old.

"It's not up to standard for one thing," Beatty told CBC News. "And it's an old piece of equipment. Even if it was operational, we don't have the trained personnel for a volunteer fire department or fire crew."

Pat Linklater is one of four volunteer firefighters in the community of 3,500. He said the truck was also in need of repair when a 10-year-old was killed in a house fire last September

"I've been here 16 years now. I've seen quite a number of people that burned. It bothers me because I know these people. I have a hard time sleeping, when we attend to fires like that and we can't do nothing."

Beatty said a current federal program covers 50 per cent of the cost of a new fire truck, but that the cost is $250,000, and it would be hard for the band to come up with the remainder.

​The broken fire truck is just one of many problems. There are no water lines running to many of the houses, and Canadian building and fire codes don't apply to on-reserve houses.

Fire safety recommendations not implemented

In 2010, the federal government devised a five-year strategy to improve on-reserve fire protection, prevention, and suppression.

The report identified a number of recommendations to improve fire safety on reserves including analyzing funding resources and enhancing fire safety education in First Nation communities.

CBC News made requests to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for an interview about the fire strategy but was denied. In an email, the minister's office said it was spending $30 million a year on the strategy, which is under review.

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