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Fire now a homicide case

Deadly blaze triggers multiple investigations of situation on reserve

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/1/2010 (2785 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The tragic fire in Shamattawa and the fiasco surrounding it are now the subject of several probes and will likely also become the subject of an inquest.

Provincial officials are exploring why it took so long for RCMP and child-welfare workers to be told an 11-year-old boy was missing following a Shamattawa house fire early Saturday.

A house fire on a remote reserve has triggered several probes and could be the subject of an inquest.

CBC NEWS PHOTO

A house fire on a remote reserve has triggered several probes and could be the subject of an inquest.

But Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said at this stage it appears child-welfare workers with Awasis Child and Family Services did not contribute to that breakdown in communication.

"The initial information, based I understand on some file reviews from the agency, was that at this point there is no evidence that protocols by the child- welfare worker weren't followed, but that must remain an outstanding question," Mackintosh said.

Besides the agency's internal review, investigations by RCMP, the province's fire commissioner and the province's medical examiner are continuing.

Chief Medical Examiner Thambirajah Balachandra said Thursday an inquest will likely be called to look into the circumstances of the fire once criminal proceedings are finished. An inquest, before a provincial court judge, would examine how the boy went unaccounted for so long and why volunteer firefighters did not respond.

Shamattawa Chief Jeff Napoakesik said the volunteer fire department in Shamattawa consists of three people and a full-time fire chief hired by the band.

Napoakesik said the band's fire chief was sleeping at a relative's house when the fire happened so he never received a phone call from RCMP about the fire.

Napoakesik said volunteer firefighting in the community means a team effort is required.

It takes people far longer to respond to calls, as they fetch gear from the fire hall, find help and warm up a vehicle.

"We have a fire truck that's in the fire hall. There are some keys in the ignition, ready to go," he said.

"This is a community that has a network of families, extended families, and it just so happened that the fire chief was not at his home but he was sleeping at his father's home, and he didn't receive contact about the fire," he said. "We try our best, for a house fire to happen at that hour, it's hard to mobilize people...We have to jump out from our homes, jump out from beds, turn on the key ignition of our trucks to warm it up a little before we go."

Mackintosh also said Manitoba's Children's Advocate Billie Schibler has also launched a review into the boy's death. He's been identified by residents as Edward Redhead.

"The children's advocate has a fairly broad mandate in terms of what she looks at in terms of the protection of children," Mackintosh said. "It is not one I can direct or even wink and nod about."

The boy was in the care of the Awasis Child and Family Services agency, which didn't know he was missing until about 80 hours after the fire.

It appears the boy had been staying with his grandparents instead of his foster family over the holidays. The grandparents had run out of heating fuel, so they locked their door and went to stay elsewhere.

Seventy-seven children in the community of about 1,350 members -- not all live in Shamattawa -- are in care.

Why the boy was in the house is unclear. How the fire started was not released.

Opposition Progressive Conservative Family Services critic Bonnie Mitchelson said any review has to look at "devolution" -- how the NDP government handled turning over child-welfare responsibilities to native-run agencies several years ago.

"It was rushed ahead without the proper training, without the proper protocols, without ensuring that people that were working in the system were trained and had the ability to put the safety of children first," she said.

Mackintosh said he would not comment on Mitchelson's statement.

"If there were shortcomings by a child-welfare worker or a foster parent for example, or a guardian, that has yet to be determined," he said. "We should not jump to conclusions at this point that there were was a lack of adherence to standards in the child-welfare system.

"I don't think fingers should be pointed at parents or grandparents or foster parents or (child-) welfare workers until we have the facts. I'm bound and determined to get to the bottom of this. I tell you, if there are shortcomings that are on the part of a child-welfare agency we're going to make the immediate changes that are necessary."

Mitchelson also said any review of the matter has to be made public quickly.

Mackintosh said anything Schibler recommends will be followed up by the province's ombudsman to see government is taking action on those recommendations.

-- With files from Gabrielle Giroday

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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