Manitoba premier consoles Pimicikamak Cree Nation after tragic fire
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This article was published 16/02/2022 (410 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
PIMICIKAMAK CREE NATION — Heather Stefanson offered comforting words to grief-stricken family members who lost “three innocent lives” in a weekend house fire, but the chief of the northern First Nation wants more than words from Manitoba’s premier.
During her first trip to a First Nation since becoming premier, Stefanson met Wednesday with the grandparents of the North children — Kolby, 17, Jade, 13, and two-year-old Reid — on Pimicikamak Cree Nation. The couple lives next to the small home that was destroyed early Saturday.
The children’s mother and father, both 36, a 20-year-old woman, and a four-year-old girl had been able to escape the flames.
Stefanson expressed her condolences and later spent time with friends and relatives who were in mourning.
“From the bottom of my heart as a mother myself, I can’t imagine what you are going through today with the loss of these three angels,” she told a gathering of about four dozen community members, including the chief and two Manitoba grand chiefs.
“We are here to help you heal. We are here to help you through this absolutely horrific and tragic time,” she told them.
Margaret North, the children’s great-aunt, was overcome with sadness and emotion as she talked to the group.
“This is very hard for us. I am happy you are here to witness this very sad incident where we lost three innocent lives.”
She said the tragedy might have been avoided if housing conditions were brought up to standard on the remote reserve, which is about 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
“What can you do, premier, to help us? We are mourning. Our spirit is crying,” she said.
Chief David Monias called on Stefanson to implement a decades-old agreement to end poverty on the community, also known as Cross Lake.
“Our community is stricken with poverty despite the fact that we have partners with this Manitoba government and Canada,” Monias said during his impassioned speech at the community hall. “Today you witnessed the mass poverty that impacts the lives of our people. We lost lives.”
On Saturday, RCMP officers arrived around 4:50 a.m. and found the home engulfed in flames. It was impossible for first responders to go inside. The four who survived had managed to escape. The other three could not be saved.
On Wednesday, nothing was left where the house had stood and any signs of scorched earth were covered by freshly fallen snow.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee were also in the community Wednesday to soothe their pain.
“We must never allow this to happen again,” said Settee, who is from the reserve.
He called the small house a “death trap.”
Arlen Dumas also addressed the premier.
“We need to honour these people that we have lost, but we also have to speak honestly. People have to ask these honest questions, premier.”
He questioned why reserves continue to have substandard housing.
“Why is that acceptable?”
Monias called on Stefanson and Manitoba Hydro to update the financial terms of the Northern Flood Agreement, which was signed between Cross Lake (Pimicikamak) and four other First Nations, the province, the federal government and Hydro in 1977.
The agreement calls for signatories to develop a plan to eradicate poverty in the community, among other objectives.
“We want revenue sharing and full implementation and compensation of the Northern Flood Agreement impacts and to restore the relationship and partnership we are supposed to have with your government for the betterment of our people,” Monias said addressing the premier directly.
“There are many outstanding issues which we need to address and I’d like to extend my hand in agreement to work together and meet again to address these dire issues,” he concluded.
Stefanson didn’t get into specifics, but reassured the group she had heard their message.
“What happened here should never have happened… and we do want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again” she said.
Earlier in the week, Monias called for Manitobans to lobby members of Parliament and local elected officials to accelerate the construction of new housing units and address other critical infrastructure and services shortages that heighten the severity and risk of fires in First Nations communities.
During the election campaign last summer, the federal Liberals pledged to spend $2 billion on housing for First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, with half of that cash available for the upcoming summer construction season.
Monias said there is no running water in the area of the community where the fire occurred. He pointed out the reserve, which has 10,000 people, doesn’t have a fire hall. There are just 1,200 homes on the reserve.
The last time a premier went to the community was in 2016. Premier Greg Selinger went to comfort them after six young people took their own lives.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
After freelancing from abroad and in Toronto for most of her career, Jessica Lee moved to Winnipeg from Toronto in 2021 to join the Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, February 16, 2022 9:37 PM CST: Adds fresh photos.