SHAMATTAWA, Man. — A fire that destroyed the only food store and prompted a state of emergency on a remote northern Manitoba reserve was set by six children, five of them under 12 and too young to be charged, RCMP said Friday.
The 1,500 residents of Shamattawa were left without supplies or emergency services when the blaze erupted Thursday and gutted the Northern Store as well as the adjacent band office, radio station and 911 centre.
RCMP said their investigation led them to six children, but only one 12-year-old boy could be charged. He was released on a promise to appear in court.
"I'm told by the RCMP that kids got into the band office, snuck in there somehow, and lit the office equipment on fire,'' Shamattawa chief Jeff Napoakesik said Friday. "Band officials and many other community members were at a funeral at the time.''
Firefighters battled the blaze using water from three nearby hydrants and a truck normally used to distribute water to homes, he said.
The community's fire truck, less than two years old, was not functioning. It had a mechanical issue that prevented it from starting, and attempts to solve the problem in recent months were unsuccessful, Napoakesik said.
"We had a mechanic from the manufacturer come in and look at it, and it still didn't work. As a matter of fact, the mechanic again was supposed to come in this Sunday.''
A 2012 report done by the Manitoba fire commissioner's office and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pointed to inadequacies of fire protection in indigenous communities. Of 61 Manitoba reserves surveyed for the report, almost one-third did not have a fire truck and 39 per cent did not have a fire hall.
Sheila North Wilson said the Red Cross is trying to get supplies to the community. (Photo: CP)
There were no reported injuries in Shamattawa, but the fire prompted an urgent response from the Red Cross.
"We're sending up the immediate needs ... and the chief and council along with the Northern Stores are identifying a secondary place to set up a temporary store,'' said Shawn Feely, Red Cross Manitoba vice-president.
"At this point in time, their immediate need is for supplies for infants — baby food, formula, diapers, that sort of thing.''
The Red Cross, which acts on behalf of the federal government for emergencies in remote First Nations, was stocking two airplanes — one commercial plane and one charter — with supplies and sending them to the reserve 700 kilometres from Winnipeg.
The weather was good Friday and Feely was confident the urgently needed shipment would arrive before day's end.
The federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department said in a written statement it was supporting the Red Cross and working to help set up a temporary band office. The North West Company, which owns Northern Stores, said it was donating food to the community and planned to have a temporary location open within a few days.
The fire is devastating for Shamattawa, said Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents First Nations communities in the province's north.
Because the community is only accessible by air, with the exception of a winter road some 190 kilometres long that is only open for a few months, rebuilding could be expensive and time-consuming, she said.
Community left shocked
"They'll have to ship supplies and materials in through the airlines, otherwise wait for the winter road,'' North Wilson said.
"And even with that (winter road), building material won't get up there until, at the earliest, mid-February. And building can't start until the ground has thawed out a bit.''
The fire left the community in shock, Napoakesik said, although every effort was made to continue with daily activities.
Kids went to school Friday and no one was forced to leave the community.
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg