ALBERTA

Saskatchewan Reserve Where 2 Children Died In Fire Had Working Fire Truck

02/19/2015 04:27 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT
Jim Parkin
LOON LAKE, Sask. - A Saskatchewan reserve where two children were killed in a blaze that didn't get a response from firefighters has a working fire truck but no proper equipment or a crew trained to use it.

While the house burned early Tuesday, the truck sat in the snow outside the home of the band's mechanic. The volunteer fire department in nearby Loon Lake didn't respond, because service to the reserve was cut weeks earlier over unpaid bills.

Richard Ben, chief of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, said the deaths have been a wake-up call. He wants the reserve to finally put together its own fire department and, in the meantime, improve relations with the Loon Lake crew.

"A lot of negativity is surrounding us and it's creating hatred amongst the communities," Ben said Thursday before attending a wake for two-year-old Harley Cheenanow and his 18-month-old sister Haley.

"We can't go back a hundred years."

The children were at home with their grandmother when the fire broke out. She managed to get out alive but the children, carried out of the burning building by their father, died at the scene.

Only police responded to the 911 call.

Ben said the reserve, home to about 1,000 people, had a large metal shed that served as a fire hall about 30 years ago, but it burned down.

About five years ago, the band bought a used fire truck but it has never been properly equipped. Its hoses don't fit the hydrants on the reserve, said Ben.

The band had been paying the nearby village of Loon Lake for the services of its volunteer fire department. But in November the village decided to quit service to the reserve because it hadn't paid its fire bills since last spring. The village has produced a letter it says it sent the band in January confirming the move.

The decision not to send a crew led to some criticism and, on Wednesday, RCMP charged a man with uttering threats after volunteer fire chief Larry Heon received an alleged threat on Facebook.

Ben said he believes the suspect was intoxicated and didn't mean any harm. And he doesn't want the two communities at war.

"It's just a tragedy and there's no one to blame in this."

Ben said that he and Heon have talked and agree that there was "a lot of miscommunication" over fire services. Ben plans to pay the unpaid bills, totalling $3,300, to have service restored.

"I think this is a wake-up call for everybody, not just us, but all First Nations in Canada — that we've got to move forward and be proactive, especially with fire safety."

Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt addressed criticism in the House of Commons on Thursday about funding to reserves.

"This First Nation, like others in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and others across the country, receive sufficient funding each year to take care of fire protection," said Valcourt, who added that each band is responsible for deciding how the money gets spent.

In the 2014-15 fiscal year, Makwa Sahgaiehcan received $40,000.

Ben said the funds have mostly been spent on fire prevention, including renovating homes to make them more fireproof, and buying smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

The Assembly of First Nations has called for an investigation into the fatal fire and said no community should be without proper fire protection and services.

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton.