Canada’s Aboriginal Affairs minister accused the opposition of trying to “score cheap political points” after an NDP MP said a lack of federal funding was to blame for a fire that killed two aboriginal children in Saskatchewan.
“This has everything to do with the lack of federal funding to First Nations when it comes to fire and emergency services,” NDP MP Niki Ashton said in question period on Wednesday.
Early Tuesday, a fire ripped through a Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation house while two children and their grandmother were inside. An 18-month girl and a two-year-old boy were carried out of the home by their father but died on scene.
Fire crews from neighbouring Loon Lake, Sask. did not respond to an emergency call about the blaze, citing a dispute over unpaid bills.
“Mr. Speaker, the minister may already know that people living on a First Nation in Canada are 10 times more likely to die in a housing fire than in any other community in our country,” said Ashton.
“The family deserves better. First Nations across the country deserve better.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt responded by attacking Ashton’s tone and cadence, saying she can yell “if it makes her feel good,” adding that “it doesn’t change the situation.”
He argued that "for that member [of parliament] and that party to try to score cheap political points over the death of children on a reserve is just unacceptable."
Over 900 people live on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation reserve, located 331 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Makwa Sahgaiehcan chief Richard Ben called the deaths a “big, big tragedy” for the community, criticizing the Loon Lake volunteer fire department’s decision not to respond to the emergency. The department cancelled its contract with the First Nation at the end of January due to a payment dispute.
The band’s finance director was sent a letter from Loon Lake administrator Laurie Lehoux on Jan. 30 saying that the band was "well over three months behind on payments for their fire bills.”
The letter, obtained by APTN News, said that “the Loon Lake Fire department will not be responding to any fires on the First Nation until this account is paid in full."
“I’m pissed off because we’ve always paid them,” Ben told CBC News. “They can’t say we haven’t put thousands of dollars into that department. And they’ve always showed up at every incident. Now we’re just pissed off.”
Prior to the contract’s cancellation, the community was charged a base $5,000 annual retainer fee and additional costs were accrued for every fire Loon Lake crews attended.
Records obtained by The Canadian Press show that $11,000 in fire service funding was given to the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation for each of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years.
According to an email from Aboriginal Affairs, funding nearly quadrupled this year to $40,000. The money comes from a $26 million fund allotted for fire protection services.
Fire safety and response remains a prevalent issue among First Nations. Last year, a fire truck sat broken while a fire engulfed a northern Saskatchewan house, killing two boys.
It’s uncertain if a timely response from firefighters would have made a significant difference. It's also unclear if a fire truck reportedly belonging to the First Nation was in working order.
The cause of the fire remains unknown.
With files from The Canadian Press
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