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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The obvious questions about the Shamattawa arson

It takes a village to lose a child. And to cover it up.

For a week information dribbled out of the Shamattawa Indian reserve regarding a tragic house fire. Yet, today, we know as little about what happened as we knew on Day One.

* We know an 11-year-old boy, Edward Redhead, is missing and presumed dead. And a 16-year-old boy is in jail and accused of killing him.

But we know next to nothing about the mysterious phone call made only minutes before the fire started, possibly from the very house, and which may hold the key to the events.

* We know the caller was not Eddie's mother. CTV reported Friday his mother is dead. But its been reported the call, to a local pastor, was placed by the daughter of Eddie's grandparents, which would make her his aunt.

* She told the pastor he would never hear from her again, and asked him to look after her son. Was she referring to the other boy in the story, the 16-year-old accused?

Many people on the reserve know, and they're not telling, just as crucial information was withheld from the police for days.

The sordid story begins on New Year's Day. Eddie's grandmother and grandfather abandoned their one-story house to stay with one of their children because they had run out of heating oil. The temperature that night was 40 below with the windchill.

Eddie, who was officially in foster care, had been staying with the couple. Over New Year's, for sure, and one news story says over the Christmas period as well. That means he might have been in their care for 8 days or more. His foster mother was out of town.

Eddie's grandmother has been interviewed and she's told a consistent story, sort of. They left their home when the heating oil ran out, locked the door, and nobody was inside, she says. Was Eddie with them? The grandmother doesn't say. In fact, CBC reported Friday that "It was not clear where she thought the boy was."

What does that mean? It sounds as if she's saying he wasn't with her and she thought she knew where he was when she locked the door. Was he with the aunt who made the frantic phone call in the middle of the next night?

Pastor Pharoah Thomas took the call before 4 a.m. He rushed over to the Redhead house, only to find it well ablaze. He said he kicked in the door and tried to search the rooms, but was driven out by fire and smoke. RCMP said Friday the smoke killed Eddie Redhead.

RCMP were dispatched and they found Pastor Thomas at the scene. They tried to rouse the reserve's fire chief, but he, too, was away from home, spending the night at his father's. The RCMP officers could only watch the house burn to the ground.

After sunrise the smouldering house became a magnet for the children on the reserve. Very soon they realized that one of their playmates was missing.

Did they go to find him? They would have known he had lived most recently at the house that was burned down. Did they go to the foster mother's to ask for him. Did they ask his relatives where he was? Did they find his grandparents?

David Harper, grand chief of the organization representing reserves in northern Manitoba, now says that by 9 a.m., only five hours after the fire started, some people on Shamattawa realized Eddie Redhead was missing and they started searching for him.

Where? Did they retrace the steps of the children? Did they question the grandparents? Did they talk to the distraught aunt?

RCMP, meanwhile, were conducting a search of their own. As the Winnipeg Free Press put it, officers "went door-knocking in the community to try and locate three youths known to hang around the homeā€¦" In the spring of 2009 an arsonist set fire to an RCMP officer's trailer on Shamattawa. He was saved when his smoke alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning. A search for the hang-arounds would be prudent.

An RCMP spokesman told the FP those three youths were located. And presumably had good alibis.

For some untold reason, the RCMP never spoke with Eddie's grandparents, the owners of the burned down house, that day. Did they have information from Pastor Thomas that the house had been unoccupied? It wasn't until the next day, Sunday, that they "located" the grandparents, as the newspapers put it.

That's when they got the story about the heating oil, the lock and the empty house.

But they were unaware that Eddie was missing and that people had been searching for him for a day already.

It wasn't until still another day had passed that one of Shamattawa's four band councillors told the RCMP of the 11-year-old boy who couldn't be found. It was early in the evening, 7 p.m., when they got the bombshell news.

-- A telling snippet of the story shows us the mindset of the RCMP even two days after the fire. Eddie's foster mother had returned home by Monday but was unaware of the fire. She said the RCMP came to her to ask if she knew where Eddie and a 16-year-old youth might be.

"[The youth] and Edward may be responsible [for the fire], that's what they told me," she told reporters.

So, two days after the fire, the RCMP had their sights set on the teenager eventually charged with murder. At the time they were still suspecting arson. Eddie, a chronic runaway, was thought to be alive and hiding with him.

But everything changed dramatically the next day, Tuesday.

RCMP and officials from the Fire Commissioner's Office were searching the fire rubble when they discovered human remains. It's presumed they discovered the bones and teeth of Eddie Redhead, although no positive identification has been made yet.

But nobody expected the news the RCMP released the next day. A further search had turned up another body, they said. They insisted it was the body of an unknown person even though a medical examiner hadn't yet examined the remains. We can now see that they thought they had discovered the 16-year-old boy.

RCMP dropped another bombshell Thursday. The second set of bones belonged to an animal, likely a caribou.

Oh, and police had arrested the 16-year-old boy in connection with the fire.

-- The story got even murkier on Friday. The teenager was being charged with second-degree murder. Murder. Justice authorities were rejecting the idea that Eddie Redhead died accidentally in the fire. Murder means he was killed intentionally, or on the facts, intentionally left to die.

If it was his mother who phoned the pastor minutes before the fire started, then we can understand why she's been written out of the official narrative.

But what about the people, including possibly his grandparents, who knew Eddie was missing and who apparently did their best not to tell the RCMP?

Were they also trying to shelter the 16-year-old from the law?

For another look at the dysfunctional world on the Shamattawa reserve see this story in the Globe and Mail, "The land of lost children," by Margaret Philp, Dec. 21, 2002.

Eight years later -- and time has stood still in Shamattawa.

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