Investigators believe a fire that tore through a building once used as an Indian day school on a northern Manitoba First Nation may have been deliberately set.
Around 5:45 a.m. Thursday, a security guard was on patrol in a residential development area in Cross Lake — about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg — when he saw smoke coming from an older building nearby, RCMP said in a news release.
The security guard called the local RCMP detachment. Mounties and firefighters arrived and fire crews started trying to douse the fire, police say.
"[The building] was engulfed in flames by the time I got there," said David Monias, chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, which is part of Cross Lake.
"We had the fire crews fighting the fire but it was too late already."
Monias was called about the fire after it was reported and raced down to the scene. He could see billowing black smoke from about 10 kilometres away, he said.
The roof collapsed and flames were showing through the top of the building. Bystanders could see the flames through the building windows, said Monias.
The fire was eventually put out, but not before the building was badly damaged, police say.
No cost estimate had been given to Monias by the time he spoke with CBC News, he said.
Cross Lake RCMP and the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner are investigating. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but investigators suspect arson, police say.
Building used to be affiliated with residential school
The building that burned down was being used mainly by the Cree Nation's health department. It held offices and ran some programs out of there, including maternal health and disability programs, said Monias.
The community has a finite number of buildings and so losing one hurts, and a lot of information and documents stored there now need to be replaced, he said.
But many in the community know the building as a former Indian Residential School building where day school was held, said Monias, a day school survivor.
"Even though we changed the function of that building, people still call it IRS," said Monias.
"That's evidence that there's still connection to the residential school, the experiences and the trauma that are associated with that building."
Canadians, Indigenous people in particular, have been honouring the lives of 215 children whose remains were recently found on the grounds of a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.
Some First Nations, including Pimicikamak, have called for the federal government to fund the search for more unmarked burial sites on the grounds where residential schools once stood.
Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Monias has a suspicion that the fire may have been related to the building's history, he said.
The band is still going to look at seeing if repairs could be made to restore the building, he said.
"How do you erase trauma and bad stuff? Well, you replace it with good stuff, with good memories. That's what we try to do."
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the Cross Lake RCMP at 204-676-2600 or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477 or online at www.manitobacrimestoppers.com.
Support available for survivors
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.