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Firefighting cut to Saskatchewan reserve due to unpaid bills

Watch above: Two toddlers died in a house fire on a Saskatchewan First Nation Tuesday morning and no fire crews responded to the scene. Wendy Winiewski finds out why the nearby volunteer department didn’t answer the call.

LOON LAKE, Sask. – A Saskatchewan village has released documents detailing a two-and-a-half-year struggle with a neighbouring reserve over firefighting fees that culminated in a letter cutting the band off services three weeks before a fire that killed two children.

A two-year-old boy and his 18-month-old sister were at home with their grandmother when the fire broke out early Tuesday on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation. The grandmother managed to get out alive but the children, carried out of the burning building by their father, died at the scene.

No firefighters responded to the blaze.

“The Loon Lake Fire Department will not be responding to any fires on the First Nations until this account is paid in full,” said a Jan. 30 letter to the reserve.

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Village administrator Laurie Lehoux said Wednesday that the reserve previously had a contract with the community for volunteer fire services. The band paid an annual $5,000 fee, plus costs for each fire the department attended.

READ MORE: Sask. reserve where blaze killed 2 children had cancelled firefighting service

But on Oct. 2, 2012, reserve Chief Richard Ben wrote a letter to the village cancelling the contract. Instead of paying the annual fee, the reserve wanted to simply pay the cost to fight each fire.

Lehoux said members of the village council’s fire board later agreed and, in January 2013, sent the band an agreement letter with a list of increased service costs. Those included $400 an hour for use of a fire truck, $300 an hour for a water truck and $25 an hour per firefighter.

The band paid its bills in 2013 but stopped the following spring, said Lehoux.

Band staff didn’t respond to any village correspondence about the outstanding bills and, in the fall when the band’s accountant was in the village office on other business, he confirmed there would be no payments, Lehoux said.

Watch: Raw video of the ruins of a fatal house fire on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation early Tuesday morning.

“He basically told me that we hadn’t saved a building on the reserve, so the band felt that they didn’t need to pay the bills.”

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The fire board decided in November that it would not respond to any more fires on the reserve, since it owed $3,300, Lehoux said.

The January letter confirming the end of services was also sent by email, she said.

The band’s chief and its finance director said Tuesday they were not aware the Loon Lake fire department was no longer responding to calls about fires on the reserve. Chief Ben, not recalling his letter in 2012, said he believed the annual fee was still being paid.

The confusion apparently stirred up emotions after the fatal fire. RCMP said Wednesday that officers had made an arrest after threats were allegedly posted on Facebook to the fire chief. Sgt. Craig Cleary could not confirm what charges the 27-year-old man is facing, but says he is to appear in court next month.

Watch the video below: Heated MP Ashton demands to know why Saskatchewan toddlers died in fire

Niki Ashton, the federal aboriginal affairs critic for the NDP, said Wednesday there are too many fire deaths on reserves and the government needs to provide more funding.

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A recent access-to-information request by The Canadian Press shows Makwa Sahgaiehcan was given just over $11,000 for fire protection in each of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years.

An email from the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the reserve got $40,000 for fire services this year. It also said records show the reserve has its own fire hall and truck.