Standing on slush under street lights in front of a charred and boarded-up home where a fire claimed the lives of four young children, a large crowd gathered in a northern Manitoba city to mourn the loss and comfort the grieving family.
Many of those at Saturday night’s vigil in Thompson brought their children and could be seen in videos that were posted to social media walking with them to a makeshift memorial of stuffed animals, candles, helium-filled balloons and flowers, pausing at the pile to add their own contributions.
“We’ve lost four little children who had so much potential to help make a difference in our society. Unfortunately, God took them home,” Shirley Robinson, a relative of the family and a councillor from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, told the crowd, noting the children’s mother and father were present at the vigil.
“I thank you all for being here. There’s so much love coming from here, all over Manitoba, Canada and internationally,” Robinson added.
RCMP said officers and emergency responders arrived at the home in the community of about 13,000 on Wednesday night to find it engulfed in flames.
Mounties said two adults made it out of the basement, a 13-year-old girl climbed out a second-floor window and firefighters were told there were still four children inside.
After the fire was brought under control, firefighters entered the building and found four children between the ages of four and 10.
The children were taken to hospital and died, RCMP said.
Their names have not been officially released but other media have identified the four dead as: Helen Joy Keeper, 10, Leon Keeper Jr., 9, Big Bear Keeper, 7, and Rowan Thomas, 4.
RCMP Sgt. Paul Manaigre said in an email Sunday that while he did not know the cause of the fire, it has been determined to be “not criminal in nature.”
“I can tell you that the residence did not have any working smoke detectors,” Manaigre wrote in the email.
During the video of the vigil, Indigenous drummers played and a woman could be heard sobbing.
“This is a living nightmare for all of us. Nothing short of a nightmare,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee told the vigil.
“We will do our utmost to make sure the family is supported, and that the questions they’re asking are answered.”
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook, who was just elected last week, was surrounded by city councillors as she addressed the vigil.
“We were just elected the night of this horrific incident. It is going to be what reminds us every day of our next four years of why we have to make this town work together,” Smook said.
Another vigil for the four children was also held simultaneously in Winnipeg.