Manitoba First Nation declares state of emergency after fire at elders complex

WINNIPEG — A First Nation in northeastern Manitoba has declared a state of emergency after a fire tore through an elders complex, displacing dozens of residents.

An electrical fire destroyed the nine-unit building on Shamattawa First Nation, more than 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, on Thursday.

The chief of the community said its only fire truck was in Winnipeg for repairs at the time and Shamattawa is now without proper fire prevention resources.

"We don't have a firehall. We don't have fire equipment for a fire truck (or) safety gear. Oxygen tanks need to be flown out to be filled. It is costing us," Chief Jordna Hill said at a news conference Monday.

"These services are things that other communities are provided with and we seem to have to fight for them."

Residents were able to escape their homes and there were no reported injuries.

Shamattawa is a remote fly-in First Nation that relies on winter ice roads to transport supplies that would otherwise be too costly to ship by air.

Unless the federal government government provides funding for a new fire truck, Hill said, the community may be without one until next year because the ice roads will soon be closed for the season.

Hill is calling on the provincial and federal governments to adequately fund fire prevention measures, long-term mental health resources and emergency housing for those displaced.

For decades, house fires on First Nations have caused deaths and injuries at a much higher rate than in off-reserve communities. Experts have said that's due to a range of factors from insufficient housing and overcrowding to improper education and a lack of funding for fire prevention and suppression services.

Another major gap is that national and provincial building and fire codes do not apply to structures on First Nations. It is up to communities to pass their own bylaws.

Residents are staying with other family members in already overcrowded homes as a temporary solution, Hill said, and unless something is done quickly they with likely be sent to Winnipeg.

The community is also dealing with a mental health crisis after a mother and daughter died by suicide this past month. Hill said the mother called him asking for help for her daughter, but there is little in the way of supports in the community.

"I'm tired, I'm hurt and I'm pissed off," he said.

Hill is concerned the fire will add onto the state of mental well-being in Shamattawa.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents some of the northern First Nations in the province, has sent members from their mobile crisis unit to provide short-term help in the community. But Hill adds there needs to be more recreational opportunities for young people, who make up 70 per cent of the First Nation's population.

"The effect of suicide is felt by everyone," he said.

"They need a future. All they have is what they can see. They can't see beyond the trees."

Grand Chief Garrison Settee with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak was on hand to lend his support to Hill and Shamattawa. He said governments need to respond immediately.

"If it's not suicide after suicide, it's the burning of buildings without adequate resources to fights these fires, also overcrowded housing that is causing all kinds of mental and emotional issues."

Neither the provincial government or Indigenous Services Canada provided an immediate response.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press