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Pressure is growing for the federal government to act on Bearskin Lake First Nation's request for military assistance to deal with COVID-19, which has infected nearly half the on-reserve population in the community in northwestern Ontario.And still no response.
A house fire Friday in Sandy Lake, a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is believed to have claimed the lives of several children, Nishnawbe Aski Nation says.
Bobby Narcisse, a deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in the province's north, told CBC News the fire occurred in the early hours of Friday morning.
"The whole leadership is in shock. The community members are in shock right now with the loss of these children," Narcisse said in an interview Friday afternoon.
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"These are, it's sad to say, the realities of living within the remote north," he added. "We need to ensure that there is proper infrastructure and investments to help our First Nation communities in dealing with these tragic crises."
The northwest crime unit of Nishnawbe Aski Police Services is investigating. They're being helped by Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal and the Ontario Provincial Police identification unit — both were sent to Sandy Lake on Friday morning.
Sandy Lake is roughly 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
Police would not say how many died or ages, adding it was too early to confirm that information.
Deputy grand chief thanks 1st responders
Narcisse said NAN has been in close contact with leadership in Sandy Lake, and is offering whatever support they can provide as the community grieves together.
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The fire started shortly after midnight, Narcisse said, and emergency response crews were at the scene, braving frigid temperatures plunging below –30 C.
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"We heard the acts of heroism and that these individuals were there and did their best to really help out in these very tragic circumstances."
Condolences, thoughts and prayers for Sandy Lake have been shared on social media.
"Sending prayers and condolences to Sandy Lake First Nation as we mourn today's tragic house fire," tweeted RoseAnne Archibald, Assembly of First Nations national chief.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu tweeted, "I am absolutely heartbroken to learn of the deaths of three children in Sandy Lake First Nation due to a recent house fire. This will be an extremely difficult time for the community as they mourn the loss of these young people."
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Some health care providers say bureaucratic red tape at the federal level is holding up vital therapies for First Nations children, causing some kids to experience further developmental delays and leaving their businesses in financial distress. Several speech-language pathologists interviewed by CBC News said their clients are waiting six to 12 months for funding approvals from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to begin sessions under the Jordan's Principle policy.
Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, Conservative provincial Minister Greg Rickford and federal MP Eric Melillo also tweeted condolences.
Several fatal house fires in recent years
"We're always in a perpetual state of crisis response," said Narcisse, adding there have been many devastating fires in remote First Nations across NAN territory in northern Ontario.
In 2011, a fire in Nibinamik First Nation claimed the lives of young boys aged two and three, and injured a third. Two years later, a fire in Wunnumin Lake killed two children and their 21-year-old aunt.
A fire in Mishkeegogamang in 2014 resulted in the deaths of a mother, her two young daughters and her nephew.
A 2016 house fire in Pikangikum killed nine people. The youngest, Amber Strang, was five months old.
A fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug claimed the lives of a family of five in 2019.
The Pikangikum fire led to the creation of Amber's Fire Safety Campaign in May 2016 by the NAN Chiefs-in-Assembly, to promote fire safety and awareness, and improve firefighting services in the 49 NAN First Nations.
A report into fire deaths in First Nations was completed in the summer of 2021 by Ontario's chief coroner.
Among the findings, it determined First Nations children under 10 had the highest fire-related mortality rate, 86 times greater than non-First Nation children in Ontario. The highest number of fire fatalities were in communities with no year-round road access.
Narcisse said much work has taken place over the past few years to improve fire safety to prevent needless tragedies.
However, he added: "A lot more needs to be done."
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