Grief-stricken northern Ontario First Nation identifies victims of fatal fire


A longtime foster mother, her biological daughter and three children she was raising as her own have been identified as the victims of a fire that levelled a home in a remote Indigenous community in northern Ontario last week.

The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, also known as Big Trout Lake, said Monday that the entire community was still struggling to deal with the loss.

Geraldine Chapman, 47, her six year−old biological daughter Shyra Chapman and three foster children —  seven−year−old Hailey Chapman, nine−year−old Karl Cutfeet and 12−year−old Angel McKay — were killed when the blaze gutted their lakeside home on Thursday, a community statement said.

“Geraldine raised her adopted children as her very own with the mutual consent of the three families involved and the community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug recognized these children as her own,” Chief Donny Morris said in a statement.

“It is important to understand, however, that this devastating tragedy has directly impacted four families and, as a result, extends throughout the community as a whole.”

Geraldine’s eldest daughter, 19−year−old Thyra Chapman, was out of town on a medical trip at the time of the blaze, the community statement said.

Morris said the investigation into the blaze, involving both the provincial police and the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office, is beginning to wind down. The scene of the blaze has not been released, however, and Morris said the cause has not yet been determined.

Community officials had previously said that several would−be rescuers had tried to pull family members from the burning home, resulting in three people being airlifted to hospital for smoke inhalation and other injuries.

Many in the community about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., were grappling with the aftermath of the loss, according to Sol Mamakwa, the provincial NDP legislator for the area.

Mamakwa, who visited the First Nation on Saturday, said he met the father of one of the children killed, noting that the man’s hands bore burn marks and bandages after his efforts to save his child from the blaze.

Mamakwa said he also visited Geraldine Chapman’s mother, who was visibly struggling to come to terms with her family’s loss. Staff at the local school, he said, were also coping with intense emotions as they removed the children’s belongings from their classrooms and tried to make sense of the tragedy.

But, he said, the community’s resilience came through even more forcefully than its grief.

“You still hear people laugh, you see people hugging,” he said. “And then they sing hymns … and gospel songs.”

Mamakwa said only two counsellors are currently on hand to support the community, adding more trauma specialists are needed in the remote fly−in area.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug has long struggled with a dearth of basic resources. A day after the blaze, a community spokesman said the First Nation had no effective means of fighting fires.

He said the community’s one fire truck did not work, the fire hall had not been completed and there were no hoses on the reserve, which sometimes resorted to using precious imported drinking water to extinguish any blazes that broke out.

Mamakwa called for a more aggressive response to the latest tragedy.

“It’s not enough just to feel bad,” he said. “It’s not enough to have moments of silence … There are actions that can be taken to make events like this less likely.”

Morris said the community would comment on the “direct and underlying causes” of the fire” at a later date, but requested privacy while residents worked to support the affected families and manage their own grief.

A GoFundMe page to help the affected families had raised more than $23,000 by Monday afternoon, more than twice the initial target of $10,000.

Noah Chapman, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug band executive director, who set up the fundraising campaign, said some of the money will be used to fly relatives in from Thunder Bay and other Ontario communities, while other proceeds will be used to cover funeral costs.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

A mother and her four children died following a house fire in the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, also known as the Big Trout Lake First Nation.