Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shirking Responsibility, Risking Lives

"It's a terrible thing -- something as important as a fire truck for the community. Having a contract dispute is putting others at risk. I don't know what to say."
Darcy Ochuschayoo, Big Island First Nation

"What went through my mind? Protocol. I just thought about it and we do not respond to fires at Makwa Sahgaiehcan right at this present time."
Larry Heon, chief, Loon Lake volunteer fire department, Saskatchewan

"A lot of negativity is surrounding us and it's creating hatred amongst the communities ... we can't go back 100 years."
"It's just a tragedy and there's no one to blame in this."
Richard Ben, chief, Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation

"The bottom line is: Two children died and the adults have to sort it out."
"It clearly has to stop and it's not going to stop unless we do something differently."
Bob Pringle, Saskatchewan children's advocate
Family members of 18-month-old Haley Cheenanow want to know why she and Harley Cheenanow were left to die in a burning house. Handout

The working fire truck sitting nearby on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation reserve was bought for the purpose of bringing safety to the one thousand residents of the reserve, with their own equipment. Unfortunately, the fire truck was never configured to fit the fire hydrants on the reserve. Nor did it have a trained crew to operate it. As in no volunteers; as in no one making the right decisions; as in indifference to their own health and security. The truck simply sat outside the band mechanic's home.

So for the chief of the reserve to metaphorically shrug his shoulders in a philosophical nod to human nature inclined to leave one own's responsibility to others, the phrase that no one is at fault sounds fairly self-forgivingly hollow. Why would a reserve of one thousand souls not have a core group of people prepared to respond to emergencies such as fires when past tragedies illustrate the need for that vital volunteer function?

There was also a volunteer fire department a fifteen minute drive away from the reserve, at Loon Lake. But they no longer responded to emergency calls from the reserve because the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation had ignored previous bills entailed for the work of the Loon Lake volunteer fire brigade. So when a house on the reserve caught fire, it burned to the ground.

Despite mounting criticism, Loon Lake volunteer fire chief Larry Heon said he stands by his decision to ignore the emergency call, saying he was following the instructions of his village council and the contract signed with the First Nation. Kim Capiral / Newcap Television

An RCMP cruiser did show up at the scene, but was unable to do much about the conflagration. The unpaid bill of $3,360.89 by the First Nation reserve caused the Loon Lake volunteer fire department to respond by suspending service to the reserve. That suspension took effect three weeks before the fire took place on Tuesday. For want of hoses hooked up to the band's own fire truck, and residents of the reserve committing to using it, two infants died.

When the small house they were in burned down to its foundation two-year-old Harley Cheenanow and his 18-month-old sister Haley, lost their lives. A letter sent out by the Loon Lake village administrator had informed the band on January 30, 2015, that they would no longer be covered from that date forward. Unless, of course, their tardy response to the outstanding bill was rectified.

Evidently the band council ignored that notification just as they had ignored the invoice for services that preceded it. And the fire truck, bought five years previously, just sat there in front of the band mechanic's house, covered with snow, its purpose completely abandoned. Now, the fire chief, who also happens to be mayor of Loon Lake is "scared for my family" because of angry telephone calls and social media messages threatening Mr. Heon.

There was a time when the reserve handled its own fire-fighting. But when the large metal shed used as a fire hall burned down thirty years earlier, interest more or less died with the shed. The children were at home with their grandmother when the fire began. The grandmother managed to escape the burning home. When police arrived at 1:30 p.m. they witnessed a man, later identified as their father, rushing out of the burning home the limp bodies of two children in his arms.

The Assembly of First Nations has called for an investigation. "Our community is in mourning there right now. We need time to do that properly. We can't have distractions and innuendo", typically stated Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief Dutch Lerat of an incident that is anything but uncommon in its details and tragic results on First Nations reserves.

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