POLITICS

Band homes can be inspected without mass evictions: Manitoba fire commissioner

12/18/2014 01:42 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - Manitoba's fire commissioner says some fatal fires in aboriginal communities could be prevented by regular informal inspections that wouldn't risk a large number of homes being condemned.

David Schafer told an inquest examining two fires on northern reserves that such inspections could look for fire hazards that could be "easy fixes" such as ensuring people have working smoke alarms and multiple escape exits.

"A lot of the deficiencies are about personal habits," he said Thursday. "It's about the bedding against the electric heater.

"It's about taking the right steps."

Schafer was the final witness at the inquest into two fatal fires in 2011: one in St. Theresa Point that killed two-month-old Errabella Harper and another about two months later in God's Lake Narrows in which Demus James and his two grandchildren, Throne Kirkness, 2, and Kayleigh Okemow, 3, died.

The inquest has heard neither reserve had a working fire truck at the time. Neighbours were left trying to fight the flames with buckets of water, wet towels and low-pressure hoses.

Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point First Nation told the inquest this week that he was concerned home inspections would result in many houses being condemned. The reserve, which has a long waiting list for homes, is left choosing between ensuring homes are safe or risking mass evictions, McDougall said.

Schafer said inspections don't have to be that detailed.

"It's about ensuring they get early warning and that they can get out of the house," he said.

Since the fatal fires, Schafer said his office has established a working group with First Nations which has put in a request to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to provide smoke detectors to all band homes in Manitoba. The $150,000 funding request hasn't been approved yet, he said.

Reserves should also focus on public education about fire prevention that could be tailored to First Nations and elders, Schafer added. That should be a priority, he said, especially when there are challenges for reserves to fight fires when they occur.

"The houses can be replaced, but the people can't."

Lawyer Corey Shefman, who represents St. Theresa Point First Nation, told the inquest the reserve supports the idea of informal inspections if they take into account the chronic housing shortage plaguing First Nations across Canada.

Statistics show that residents of Manitoba First Nations are far more likely to die in house fires than people living off reserve, who are more likely to escape with injuries. Although fires on reserves make up less than five per cent of all fires in Manitoba, they account for up to half the fatalities.

A recent survey of Manitoba First Nations found serious deficiencies in firefighting capabilities. Almost one-third did not have a fire truck and 39 per cent did not have a fire hall. The survey, conducted by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Office of the Fire Commissioner, recommended regular inspections of band homes to identify fire hazards.

Manitoba's chief medical examiner called the inquest into the fatal fires in 201. Judge Tracy Lord told the court she will be issuing two reports, one for each First Nation. She has until next summer to finalize her recommendations.