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Two toddlers died in a fire on remote Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan. While it is unknown whether a firefighters could have prevented their deaths, the tragedy has highlighted gaps in fire protection on reserves.

Two Toddlers Die in Blaze; Firefighters Not Called Because of Contract Dispute

ICTMN Staff
2/18/15

Two toddlers died in a First Nation reserve fire in the wee hours of Tuesday February 17, as firefighters slept in the neighboring village—unsummoned because there was no longer a contract, officials said the next day.

Firefighters were not called to the scene as a home burned on Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, said Loon Lake mayor and volunteer fire chief Larry Heon to the Canadian Press, because the contract with the village had been canceled. Only the Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded, and by then the little ones’ father was carrying their lifeless bodies out of the house.

It was not clear on Wednesday February 18 whether the lack of response had been directly responsible for the children’s deaths. The fire department is at least five miles away and might not have been able to make a difference “by the time its four members woke, geared up and traveled more than 10 kilometers to the scene,” the Canadian Press said, paraphrasing Heon.

However, a 911 call was automatically routed to Heon at 1:30 a.m. on February 17, but his crew was not deployed, he said.

"If you don't pay your bills you get no service, right? Just like if you don't pay your gas bill, you get no gas," Heon told CJME News Talk Radio in Saskatchewan, where the First Nation and village are located.

Band officials told the Canadian Press they thought there was a contract. Loon Lake officials said the contract had been canceled—by the First Nation. Investigators were still searching for answers on February 18 as the 1,000-member northern Saskatchewan community absorbed the news that two of its youngest residents had walked on.

Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation received a little more than $11,000 to fund fire protection during each fiscal year of 2012-13 and 2013-14, reported the Canadian Press. The Canadian government allocates about $26 million annually for firefighting protection on reserves across the country, according to CJME.

This was the third fatal fire on a remote reserve in just two months, reported CJME, with children the victims in each case. Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation lost 10-year-old Teegan Ahenakew in December, and English River First Nation is mourning the January loss of Natalia Wolverine and her little brother Jarome, the radio station said. The Assembly of First Nations has called for an increase in and overhaul of funding mechanisms for firefighting on reserves.

It was not clear who had canceled the Makwa Sahgaiehcan firefighting contract. According to the Canadian Press, Heon said that “the band has outstanding bills and last year sent the village a letter discontinuing the service.” But band leadership told the newswire that they knew nothing about that, had paid thousands of dollars to Loon Lake, and had assumed the department would respond to any fire.

Meanwhile the community is left to mourn the deaths of Harley and Haley Cheenanow, aged two and 18 months, respectively. Their grandmother, who had been with them when the fire broke out, managed to escape, the Canadian Press said.

Makwa Sahgaiehcan Chief Richard Ben told the Canadian Press that the children’s parents are friends of his and that he had spoken with them since the fire. He added that he did not know the band no longer had a firefighting contract.

“We’ve always had it. This is news to me,” he told the Canadian Press. “We’ve paid thousands upon thousands to that fire department. Other fires, they’ve showed up. Other fires, we paid them for it. And for them not to show up at this incident is kind of an insult of the First Nation.”

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