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Homebrew, police gap blamed in fire deaths

"SUPER juice" and a lack of policing are being blamed for a cooking fire that turned deadly in Wasagamack First Nation Friday

A 14-year-old boy and a three-year-old child escaped the fire that followed a house party in the remote community 280 kilometres southeast of Thompson.

Wasagamack First Nation Chief Alex McDougall said it's believed the two boys' parents died in the blaze police said was caused by careless cooking. He wouldn't name the couple, saying their identities have not yet been confirmed by a post-mortem.

McDougall said the fire could've been prevented if more policing and social services were available to First Nations such as his.

There was a party the night before the fire at the home, he said. People were reportedly drinking "super juice" -- a powerful and sometimes deadly homebrew illegal in the dry community, McDougall said.

"It causes people to black out and has terrible, terrible effects."

When the children escaped the house fire at about 8 a.m., there was no one on duty to answer the phone and send emergency help because of funding cuts at the First Nation, which is under third-party management, said the chief.

McDougall said the reserve has a fire truck and people trained in firefighting but too few police, who dispatch emergency services. He said they have two band constables in a community of 2,000 when they should have a police officer for every 200 people. They should be stopping super juice, not waiting until someone dies after drinking it at a party, he said. The "turbo yeast" arrives in packages "like Tang," is mixed with water and ferments quickly.

"We learned from the 14-year-old there were other people in the house. We went to account for those people, and we're going through a process of elimination."

McDougall and other First Nation members set about tracking down the partygoers in the community and at neighbouring reserves. Only two people couldn't be found and accounted for -- the children's parents, he said.

When the RCMP arrived, two bodies were found in the home. Not having enough police -- especially in remote First Nations with lots of poverty, a shortage of housing and few job opportunities -- is a problem for many First Nations, he said.

"There are many social problems in communities like ours," McDougall said.

"I would like to see the whole (policing) program assessed and have a look at its gaps and have them resolved and provide the necessary resources and improve those services." He's asked the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for help.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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