It was just days before Christmas in December 2016 when a fire tore through a two-storey home in Oneida of the Thames, southwest of London, Ontario. Four children and their father died.
The Toronto Star’s coverage of the fire began as usual — cause, local reaction — but when reporters Alicja Siekierska and Jesse Winter dug deeper, they found the government had stopped keeping track of how many people had died in fires on reserves in Canada. If that wasn’t happening, the reporters asked, how could anyone understand how big a problem fires on reserves are — and how could it ever it be solved?
Siekerska and Winter set to work trying to find a number by calling provincial officials — coroners, fire marshals and police departments – across Canada, creating a database to track their findings. Their investigation eventually revealed that at least 173 people — 25 of them children — have died in house fires since the Canadian government stopped tracking the death toll in 2010.
The reporters tracked down many of the families affected by fires on Facebook, and interviewed and produced heartbreaking stories of people who were impacted by substandard housing and shoddy firefighting infrastructure. They visited Indigenous communities in northern Ontario where Winter shot a 360 video, in remote Pikangikum, showing the graves of nine people who died in a fire in 2016. They spoke with professional firefighters and volunteers who had dedicated their spare time to keeping their communities safe. And they explained the problem in three concise, poignant stories — on thestar.com, on Facebook, and through the Star’s other social media channels, such as Instagram, where the story was told sparingly and visually.
In the immediate wake of their investigation, Canada’s Indigenous affairs minister Carolyn Bennett pledged to track on-reserve fire deaths and create an indigenous fire marshal’s office , something many groups had been calling for years.
The Toronto Star is pleased to present “Fire and Death in Canada’s First Nations” for your consideration for the Knight Award for Public Server.