Male charged with first-degree murder in fire that killed household in Northern Ontario First Nation

The former common-law partner of a woman who died in a 2019 house fire along with four of her children in a remote Ontario First Nation has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder in connection with the blaze.

The Ontario Provincial Police arrested 42-year-old Archie Gilbert McKay on Tuesday, more than a year after the deadly fire in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, which devastated the close-knit community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

Mr. McKay was scheduled to appear in court in Kenora, Ont., on Wednesday. It is unclear if he is the biological father of any of the children who died. The OPP did not respond to requests for comment.

Chief Donny Morris said residents are having a hard time processing news of criminal charges that transform a tragedy into a gruesome alleged crime.

“We’re trying to put our lives together as a community and now it’s just opened it up again,” Mr. Morris said.

Early on the morning of May 2, 2019, the home of 47-year-old Geraldine Chapman went up in flames, killing the mother and convenience store operator, along with her biological daughter Shyra Chapman, 6, and her three foster children – Angel McKay, 12, Karl Cutfeet, 9, and Hailey Chapman, 7. The lone surviving child was 19-year-old Thyra Chapman, who was away at the time of the fire.

Soon after, the band declared a state of emergency in response to the mental health toll of the tragedy.

Mr. Morris said the family and community had been waiting on the results of the investigation from police and the fire marshal, amid continuing speculation about whether the fire was an accident or foul play. The arrest at least provides some comfort for the victim’s families who have been waiting for answers, he added.

Sam McKay, a community crisis worker from KI, as the band is known, said police arrived in the community on Tuesday to make the arrest before they notified local leadership and the victims’ families.

“They didn’t want to tip off the person,” said Mr. McKay, who is not related to the man charged. “They were worried about his safety as well. They wanted to ensure they had him safely in custody before they informed the leadership.”

Mr. McKay said while the community had been expecting an outcome to the investigation, they weren’t prepared for the magnitude of the first-degree murder charges. He is worried about the mental well-being of community members who are unable to receive help from outside the community because of COVID-19.

“There’s going to be long-term effects,” he said.

Last summer, the family was memorialized with five small crosses planted in the rubble of their home.

The pain of their deaths rippled out widely in the small community. Because three of Ms. Chapman’s children were fostered, roughly a quarter of the band’s population of about 1,500 has family connections to the deaths, Mr. Morris estimated at the time.

Geraldine Chapman was a kind and trustworthy person, the Chief said in an interview last year. She provided for her large family by running a small convenience store. “Not many people would do that: provide the love, provide the care, provide the shelter,” he said.

This article first published here