A fire has claimed the lives of nine people in the remote First Nations community of Pikangikum.
Ontario Provincial police were releasing few details about the incident on Wednesday morning, but confirmed that there were multiple deaths.
“Last night at approximately 11:44 p.m., officers from Pikangikum police service as well as the OPP and the Pikangikum fire department responded to a residential fire,” said OPP spokesperson Diana Cole.
“As a result of the preliminary investigation, it’s been discovered that a number of persons have been confirmed deceased within the residence, and there are still a number of persons that remain unaccounted for.”
The investigation is “in the very early stages,” Cole added.
Reports from inside the community, and on Facebook from people who identified themselves as family members of Pikangikum residents, indicated that nine people had died.
The member of Parliament for the riding that includes Pikangikum First Nation, Robert Nault, later confirmed that number, and said the dead included three children. The victims are all believed to be members of the same family.
Statements of condolence began pouring in from local, provincial and federal politicians shortly before noon.
The office of Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett said she would be releasing a statement later in the day on Wednesday.
At 3:30 p.m., Bennett did so, saying that “it is with tremendous sorrow that I learned of the tragic loss of lives in a fatal house fire at Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario today. My heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies go out to the victim’s families and the community during this painful and difficult time.”
Officials in Bennett’s department “are reaching out to the First Nation to offer our condolences and to identify any support that we can provide to meet the community’s needs,” the minister added.
“In addition, my colleague, the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, will be working with local and First Nation leaders, along with the province, to provide a trauma team and to determine what is else will be needed to support the healing process.”
Pikangikum is located about 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and mainly accessible by air. The isolated First Nations reserve is a microcosm of some of the most pressing issues facing reserves across Canada. It has limited access to running water and the approximately 3,000 residents rely exclusively on diesel for electricity as Ontario’s grid does not reach them.
Pikangikum has also struggled for decades against extremely high suicide rates. In 2011, it had a suicide rate equivalent to 250 per 100,000, believed to be the highest in the world.
With files from the Canadian Press.
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