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Deaths in Kashechewan Fire Blamed on Poor Jail Conditions

Deaths on reserve blamed on poor jail conditions
January 10, 2006.
Steve Erwin, Canadian Press

A jailhouse fire that killed two inmates from the troubled Kashechewan First Nation might have been prevented if governments had responded to pleas to replace it, critics said Monday.

An inquest has been called into the deaths of the two aboriginal men who perished in the blaze Sunday while under police custody for minor offences. The fire also injured an aboriginal police officer in the isolated reserve off the shores of James Bay.

Provincial police and Ontario's fire marshal are still investigating the fire, and arson has not yet been ruled out. But regardless of the cause, reserve leaders and political critics say faulty jail cell locks may have prevented officers from rescuing the inmates in time to escape the flames.

Native leaders say both Ottawa and the province have known for years of deplorable conditions at the jail, essentially an old house renovated years ago into a makeshift police facility.

And provincial New Democrat Gilles Bisson said the jail was ``totally dysfunctional inside,” with no fire alarms or fire suppression systems, and padlocks and chains had to be used to keep inmates in cells because the cell door locks weren't working.

“We wouldn't allow police stations to be in those kinds of conditions anywhere else,” Bisson said.

“There are standards that have to be followed. Why don't we follow them for these communities?”

Bisson, who happened to be in Kashechewan on Sunday and witnessed the blaze, said other Ontario reserve jails, including one in Attawapiskat, have similar structural problems.

He called on the province to launch an audit of all jails on Ontario reserves, fast-track any necessary repairs and push Ottawa to help fund the work.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty expressed sympathy for the victims' families and said he'll wait for the coroner's inquest before deciding on any specific measures.

“I think it's really important that we allow the coroner's office to do its work,” he said, adding that he hoped the inquest ``proceeds as quickly as possible. I look forward to receiving those recommendations and following up on those.”

Ontario's chief coroner said plans were immediately launched for an inquest, which is mandatory under the Coroners Act when a death occurs while a person is in police custody. Dr. Barry McLellan conceded that public attention surrounding Kashechewan's woes spurred his office to act quicker than usual.

“There's already a significant amount of public interest into these two deaths.x .x .so we thought it was appropriate to inform the public as early as possible,” said McLellan.

“It's unusual for us to make announcements this early because there's no way at this point that we know exactly how long (the police and fire) investigation is going to take and when the inquest will be held.”

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday identified the victims as Ricardo Wesley and Jamie Goodwyn, both in their 20s. Goodwyn was a nephew of the chief's wife, he said.

Three police officers were unable to get the young men out of their locked cells in time.

One of the officers, Claude Koosees, suffered burns and was flown to Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, where he was still receiving treatment Monday.

The 1,900-member Kashechewan community is included in the ridings of Bisson and federal NDP member Charlie Angus. Both politicians highlighted concerns about a potentially deadly E. coli scare in the community last October, which later resulted in an evacuation involving most of the reserve's residents.

Bisson said the E. coli concerns and Sunday fire shows “it takes a tragedy, or some sort of a crisis to happen, before governments respond” to aboriginal issues.

Friday said grief counsellors have been called in to speak to the tight-knit community.

“We're looking at a long-term process for the healing of the youth,” Friday said.

Grand Chief Stan Loutitt of the Mushkegowuk Council of tribes in northern Ontario said his office has complained to federal and provincial governments about the inadequacy of reserve jail facilities since 1994.

“They've been very slow in recognizing that indeed it is a crisis and here we are again: two lives are lost. Will people wake up?” Loutitt asked.

Loutitt said the Nishnawbe-Askia police, which runs the three-member Kashechewan force and other native detachments, is funded 52 per cent by Ottawa and 48 per cent by the province.

In a statement, federal Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott expressed condolences to the victims' families.

“Kashechewan is a community that has faced more than its share of trouble. My department is ready to assist in any way it can during this period,” Scott said.


Two Killed in Fire in Kashechewan Jail
January 9, 2006.
Canadian Press

Kashechewan First Nation, Ont. — The troubled conditions on a northern Ontario reserve were again thrust into the spotlight Sunday afternoon when a fire at the community jail killed two inmates and badly injured a police officer who was trying to save them.

Two young men were in their cells when fire broke out in the building, Inspector Pierre Guerard of the Nishnawbe-Askia police said from Cochrane, Ont. Three officers made every attempt to evacuate the facility, but were overcome by smoke and flames, he said.

“These deaths have really shaken up the community,” area MP Charlie Angus said from Ottawa. “It just seems like more tragedy upon tragedy has been piled up in these communities. People are very upset there right now.”

One police officer attempted to free the inmates, but was badly injured during a futile attempt to open the doors. He was flown to the burn unit of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto for treatment. A second police officer and civilian guard were treated locally for smoke inhalation, he said.

The names of the victims have not been released.

It is not clear what caused the fire, or why the officer was unable to open the doors, but Mr. Angus said the facility was in terrible condition.

The community jail “looks like a flophouse” and didn't have proper jail doors or padlocks, he added.

“It just was in terrible, terrible condition, holes in the walls, the cells were inadequate. It looked more like something you see in Sarajevo than the province of Ontario.”

The MP for Timmins James-Bay was instrumental in bringing attention to the tainted water that forced community residents from their homes last fall.

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday said the tragedy further highlights the community's extensive problems.

“I asked for a fire department building for the last five years and didn't get any response from the government.”

He added the jail was combined with the post office, which also burned to the ground in Sunday's blaze.

Mr. Angus said the weekend tragedy is yet another example of how the government has failed those living on the reserve on the shores of James Bay.

“What we're dealing with here is again the neglect at the federal and provincial levels,” he said Sunday.

“It's this makeshift and make-do operations, [a] failure of infrastructure in that community,” he said.

All but 200 of the 1,700 residents of the reserve were evacuated after E. coli bacteria was found in their water supply this fall.

The tainted water that drew national attention to the troubled conditions on the reserve meant residents lived under a boil-water advisory for two years.

When Health Canada announced high levels of E. coli in the community's supply of drinking water on Oct. 14, chief Friday immediately called a state of emergency and a community evacuation began in the following weeks. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada initially said it would not fund an evacuation, but reversed its decision after a regional doctor publicly unveiled photos of children suffering a variety of skin infections made worse by chlorine that had been dumped into the water to kill the bacteria.

Officials said Kashechewan's water has been free of E. coli since Oct. 17, after a contractor fixed its chlorination machine. And while most residents returned home in November, problems persist because frozen fire hydrants have not allowed the entire water system to be flushed out.

Provincial and Nishnawbe-Askia police forces, along with the fire marshal and coroner will investigate the blaze.