‘We need action’: One dead, two unaccounted for after Pikangikum First Nation fire
A remote northwestern Ontario First Nation lacked the facilities to extinguish a house fire that left one dead and two others missing, two local leaders said as they implored the federal government for help bolstering fire services.
The CEO of The Independent First Nations Alliance, a group that represents five communities in the region, said the blaze that erupted in Pikangikum First Nation on Wednesday evening has left its residents “crushed.”
“The community is very frustrated, very angry, very sad,” Mathew Hoppe said in a telephone interview on Saturday.
“That night of extreme cold, people were doing their best to fight the fire and deal with it, but the fire crew couldn’t prevent it due to frozen water hoses, nozzles. It was very dire circumstances.”
Pikangikum Chief Shirley Lynne Keeper issued a statement on Friday saying fire crews were unable to douse the flames because the community’s two fire trucks were having mechanical issues.
“Our fire trucks were frozen because we don’t have an adequate building to keep them warm,” she said.
Keeper said Pikangikum is “devastated” after losing more residents to yet another house fire, recalling the 2016 blaze that killed a family of nine on the First Nation.
“We have never felt so hopeless,” Keeper said in the statement. “Our ability to fight structural fires has not improved since 2016. … We are still investigating this tragic fire and we ask everyone to pray for the family and our community.”
Dean and Annette Strang, their son Gilbert, their daughter Faith, Faith’s three children and two common-law partners died in the 2016 fire. All three children were under the age of five.
“Many community members lost family. This has affected us greatly. We never wanted to see this happen again,” Keeper said.
Hoppe said he couldn’t identify the three people involved in Wednesday’s blaze, but said they are a family who lived in the “close knit” neighbourhood affectionately known as “Smurfs’ Village” because the homes in that area have blue walls. The search for the two people still unaccounted for after the fire continued over the weekend.
Hoppe said the federal government has been in touch with the community and has been involved in ongoing meetings with local leadership.
Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hoppe and Keeper lamented the lack of government progress in addressing fire-related safety concerns since 2016 and called for immediate action to support the community of about 4,000 people, located about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
“The government’s response to date has been unacceptable. No more words, we need action,” Keeper said.
Hoppe agreed, saying there is a major discrepancy between fire services available in Indigenous communities and those on offer elsewhere.
“That capacity for emergency services and fire departments do not exist to the same level that other communities, municipalities enjoy,” he said.
A 2021 Statistics Canada report commissioned by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council found First Nations people living on reserves are about 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous Canadians.
This week’s fire in Pikangikum is the latest fatal blaze to strike First Nations in the area.
A 10-year-old girl died last month after a house fire on the Weenusk First Nation, a northern community in Peawanuck, Ont.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a group representing 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, said at the time the community’s newly purchased fire truck was still stuck in Winnipeg awaiting shipment when the fire broke out.
NAN’s Deputy Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum added several member communities have had to grapple with deadly house fires over the past decade.
That includes Sandy Lake First Nation, where three children died in a fire last January. Mishkeegogamang First Nation, meanwhile, lost four residents in 2014, including two young children.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2023
Two families found dead trying to enter US from Canada: Police – Al Jazeera English
Authorities have launched an investigation following the discovery of eight bodies in a marshy area of the St Lawrence River in Quebec near Canada’s border with the United States.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service said six bodies were found about 5pm (21:00 GMT) on Thursday in the marsh in Tsi Snaihne, Akwesasne. Two more were discovered on Friday.
At a news conference on Friday, deputy police chief Lee-Ann O’Brien said the dead belonged to two families — one of Romanian descent with Canadian passports, the other Indian. One child under the age of three was among the fatalities, she said.
“All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the US from Canada,” O’Brien said at the press conference.
Later that day, the chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, Shawn Dulude, said that one of the two additional bodies recovered was that of an infant from the Romanian family.
The deaths came one week after the United States and Canada announced the expansion of a border agreement granting them the authority to expel asylum seekers who cross the nations’ shared border at unofficial points of entry.
O’Brien said the bodies were found near a capsized boat belonging to a missing man from the Akwesasne Mohawk community, which stretches along both sides of the St Lawrence River, with land in Ontario and Quebec on the Canadian side, and in New York state.
Authorities were awaiting the results of post-mortem and toxicology tests to determine the cause of death.
Marco Mendicino, Canada’s minister of public safety, said the Canadian Coast Guard and the Quebec provincial police force were assisting Akwesasne police in their investigation.
“The news coming out of Akwesasne is heartbreaking,” the minister wrote on Twitter. “I’ve reached out to Grand Chief Abram Benedict to express our condolences. As we await more details, my thoughts are with the loved ones of those lost.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed his condolences to the families. “This is a heartbreaking situation, particularly given the young child that was among them,” he told reporters.
“We need to understand properly what happened, how this happened and do whatever we can to ensure that we’re minimising the chances of it happening again.”
Last month, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police reported a recent increase in undocumented entries through their lands and waterways. The statement said some people required hospitalisation.
In January, the police force noted that people involved in human smuggling had attempted to use shorelines along the Saint Lawrence River in the area.
‘Put human lives at risk’
Trudeau unveiled the expanded border deal, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), last week during US President Joe Biden’s first official visit to Canada since taking office.
Since 2004, the STCA has forced asylum seekers to make claims for protection in the first country they arrive in — either the US or Canada, but not both.
That has meant that people already in the US could not make an asylum claim at an official port of entry into Canada, or vice versa, and allowed border authorities to uniformly turn people back at official land crossings.
The expanded agreement unveiled on March 24 closed a loophole in the STCA that previously allowed asylum seekers who crossed into Canada at unofficial points along the border to have their protection claims assessed once they were on Canadian soil.
The White House said last week that the restrictions would now also be applied “to migrants who cross between the ports of entry”.
Advocates slammed the move, saying applying the STCA to the entire 6,416km (3,987-mile) land border between the US and Canada would not prevent people from seeking to cross, but would only force them to take more dangerous routes.
The news coming out of Akwesasne is heartbreaking.
I’ve reached out to Grand Chief Abram Benedict to express our condolences.
As we await more details, my thoughts are with the loved ones of those lost.
— Marco Mendicino (@marcomendicino) March 31, 2023
Migrant justice advocates laid the blame for the most recent deaths on policymakers.
“The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) and other immigration laws are meant to deter migration from the global south by making border crossing deadly,” Nazila Bettache, a member of the Caring for Social Justice Collective, said in a statement on Friday.
“Let’s be clear, these deaths were predictable and predicted — and in that sense they are intentional.”
Samira Jasmin, spokesperson for the Solidarity Across Borders advocacy group, added that “these immigration policies put human lives at risk! We cross borders for a better world and instead face death”.
Local authorities disputed the idea that the closure played a role in the most recent deaths.
“Right now what I can tell you is this has nothing to do with that closure,” O’Brien said. “These people were believed to be gaining entry into the US. It’s completely opposite.”
The STCA applies in both directions, however, and US Border Patrol processed 3,577 people who crossed into the US irregularly from Canada last year, CBS News recently reported, citing government data.
Earlier this year, a family of four from India — including two children — were found frozen to death in the central Canadian province of Manitoba near the border with the US.
Authorities said they had attempted to cross over the border by foot on January 19 during severe winter weather and died from exposure.
A Haitian asylum seeker who came to Quebec via a popular, informal border crossing known as Roxham Road was also found dead at the frontier in late 2022 after attempting to go back to the US to rejoin his family.
Terrible – and just days after the US/Canada deal.
Again and again, we see punitive + deterrence-based asylum policies have horrifying and tragic consequences.
Consequences borne by migrants fleeing persecution. Consequences that are getting harder to describe as unintentional. https://t.co/mouezQ6cRF
— Danilo Zak (@DaniloZak) March 31, 2023
Police recover 2 more bodies from St. Lawrence River near Ontario-Quebec border – CBC.ca
Eight people are dead after they tried on Thursday to cross the St. Lawrence River into the United States near Akwesasne — a community which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state — according to officials. One other person is still missing.
Police recovered two more bodies from the river Friday, after discovering six bodies and an overturned boat during a missing person search Thursday afternoon.
The bodies are those of six adults and two children: one under the age of three who had a Canadian passport, the other an infant who was also a Canadian citizen, according to Shawn Dulude, the police chief for the nearby Kanien’kehá:ka community of Akwesasne. Dulude spoke to reporters at a Friday news conference.
They were found in a marsh on the riverbank.
They are believed to have been an Indian family and a Romanian family who were attempting to cross into the U.S., according to police.
Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne resident, remains missing, police said. Oakes was last seen on Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. ET boarding a small, light blue vessel, leaving Cornwall Island. He was dressed in black, wearing a black face mask and a black tuque.
He was later reported missing, leading to the search efforts that found the bodies. Oakes is a person of interest in the case, said Dulude.
Police located Oakes’s vessel near the bodies, Lee-Ann O’Brien, the deputy chief of police for the Akwesasne Mohawk police service, said on Friday morning. Akwesasne is about 120 kilometres west of Montreal.
The IDs of the victims have not yet been released, pending notification of their next of kin.
A storm brought high winds and sleet into the area on Wednesday night. “It was not a good time to be out on the water,” O’Brien said.
“It could have been anything that caused this tragedy,” he said. “It could have been a faulty boat, it could have been human error and that the investigation will determine.”
Kevin Sturge Lazore, captain of the Akwasasne Fire Department’s Station 3, sent 15 volunteer firefighters to search the river on Thursday after Oakes’s family reported him missing. Another dozen or so volunteers from other stations in the community joined the effort.
The firefighters recovered the boat, its hull dented on the bottom as if it had hit ice or a rock, Lazore said.
He and O’Brien said the boat was small, and wouldn’t have been able to safely carry seven or eight people.
“What that boat could handle and the amount of people in it, it doesn’t make a pretty picture,” Lazore said, standing by the fire department dock on the water.
Friday morning, the water was calm and mirror-like. “It can change in the blink of an eye,” Lazore said, noting waves were more than a metre high Wednesday night.
“The river is always the major concern…. Our elders tell us, always be careful, especially in the spring, with the runoff, the current is stronger and the water is freezing.”
Other attempted crossings
The volunteer firefighters were only searching for one person when they discovered the first six bodies.
“It’s hitting them now,” Lazore said, adding they had begun a debrief Thursday evening to process what they had seen, but were interrupted by a call for a structure fire.
Thursday wasn’t the first time Lazore’s team has been called on to search for missing people who have tried to cross the border.
He said they rescue people attempting to enter the U.S. or Canada over the river and its tributaries about three or four times a year.
“It gets hard. It wears the guys down.”
Almost exactly a year ago, they rescued a group of six Indian nationals who had just made it into the United States on the river when the boat they were in hit a shallow bank and got stuck.
They were able to stand up in the boat and were rescued by the volunteers and Akwasasne Police Department — which received $6.5 million from the Quebec government last year to help it deal with the increased flow of human smuggling in the area.
“They were lucky. It could have been a lot worse,” Lazore said.
The fire station is next to a recreation centre where community members gathered Friday afternoon. They sit across a road from the Tsi’Snaihne River.
A police helicopter circled above.
Next to the fire station, a group of men lit a sacred fire early that morning and kept it going throughout the day. Lazore said the fire was to honour the families and Oakes.
Smuggling on the rise
O’Brien, the deputy police chief, said the community has seen an uptick in human smuggling into the U.S. There have been 48 incidents so far this year, she said.
But the recent deaths had nothing to do with the closure of the Roxham Road illegal border crossing, she added.
“That closure was people seeking refuge, leaving the U.S. to Canada. These people were believed to be gaining entry into the U.S. It’s completely the opposite.”
Most of those who try to enter the U.S. through the area are Indian and Romanian families, she said, but she said she “had no idea” why that was the case.
Ryan Brissette, a public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, says the agency had seen a “massive uptick in encounters and apprehensions” at the border.
The agency saw more than eight times as many people try to cross from Canada into the U.S. in 2022 compared to previous years, he said. Many of them — more than 64,000 — came through Quebec or Ontario into New York.
“Comparing this area in the past, this is a significant number,” Brissette said.
“There’s a lot of different reasons as to why this is happening, why folks are coming all of a sudden through the northern border. I think a lot of them think it’s easier, an easy opportunity and they just don’t know the danger that it poses, especially in the winter months.”
Eight bodies found in St Lawrence River near US-Canada border – BBC
Authorities say they have recovered the bodies of eight migrants, including two children, who died trying to cross illegally from Canada into the US.
A police helicopter spotted two more bodies in the St Lawrence River on Friday. Two families from Romania and India are among the dead.
It is unclear if there is any link between Mr Oakes and the families.
Police said the first body was found around 17:00 local time (21:00 GMT) in a marsh in Tsi Snaihne in Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory right between the US-Canada border.
The other bodies were discovered nearby. Their identities have not yet been released by police.
The dead were six adults and two children.
One child was under the age of three and had a Canadian passport. The other infant was also a Canadian citizen, a local police chief told reporters at a Friday news conference.
The bodies are believed to be from two families, one of Romanian descent and one of Indian descent, Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, told reporters.
“All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the US from Canada,” Ms O’Brien said. She added that weather conditions were rough in the area on Wednesday night.
The bodies were found in the Quebec area of Akwesasne, a Mohawk community whose territory includes parts of Ontario, Quebec and New York State. It is located about 120km west of Montreal.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “This is a heartbreaking situation.
“We need to understand properly what happened, how it happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of this ever happening again.”
Bodies of people attempting to cross into the US from Canada have been discovered at other locations in recent months.
In January, police in Canada found the bodies of four people, including an infant, in a snow field near Emerson, Manitoba, by the US-Canada border. The dead are believed to be a family from India, US officials said.
A Montreal man was also found dead near the US-Canada border in December. Fritznel Richard, 44, was trying to cross into the US to reunite with his wife and child.
US border agents have noted an uptick of people crossing back from Canada.
In January, US Border Patrol apprehended 367 people attempting to cross north to south – more than the number of such crossings in the last 12 years combined.
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