Manitoba boy's death a possible homicide after airport's runway lights fail

Relates to:
Date: 2008-11-18

Gabrielle Giroday and Mary Agnes Welch
Winnipeg Free Press

WINNIPEG - Volunteers crowded a rural runway in northeast Manitoba on Wednesday night in a desperate effort to light the strip so a plane could take a local 13-month-old boy for emergency medical help.

The treatment of the boy - whose death is now being treated as a possible homicide - is now the focus of provincewide scrutiny after the death came to light Sunday. 

The boy from Gillam, Man., was taken to hospital 280 kilometres away by ambulance because the plane couldn't land in the remote community about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Free Press learned Monday.

The child from the Fox Lake Cree Nation was in foster care at the time of his death. Police haven't released details of how he died and no one has been charged in relation to his death.

Around 8 p.m. local time Wednesday, runway lights at the Gillam Airport stopped working. Gillam's mayor, Albert McTavish, said a scheduled Calm Air flight didn't land for safety reasons.

About 25 Gillam residents - including fire crews, police officers and rangers - went to the airport with quads, snowmobiles, personal vehicles and emergency vehicles in an attempt to illuminate the runway after the lights failed.

The malfunction became drastic when another call came in about an hour later requiring 13-month-old Cameron Ouskan to be rushed out of the community for emergency medical help.

The boy ended up travelling to Thompson, Man., by ambulance, an approximately 300-kilometre distance over portions of gravel roads.

Ouskan died in the Thompson General Hospital on Thursday, a day after he was taken to the hospital.

The boy's death is now the focus of an RCMP investigation into a possible homicide.

"(The Calm Air flight) actually turned around and went back to Winnipeg," said McTavish.

He said the lighting was installed this year, and the failure is not a usual occurrence.

"We found the problem, we fixed the problem, and we will be carrying spare parts at the airport," he said. "The lighting was new, brand-new."

The electrician who repaired the runway lights - which were operable by the next morning - said wiring was the problem.

Through a spokesperson, Culture and Heritage Minister Eric Robinson, the NDP provincial politician for the area, said it's premature to link Ouskan's death to a shortage of emergency health-care resources in the north, or to poorly maintained airports.

The maintenance and upgrading of remote northern airports has been a perennial problem for many communities that don't have road access for much of the year and have limited medical help on-site.

A decade ago, a provincial working group identified about $50 million in capital-funding needs for a host of airports in First Nations communities. That was a cost the report said the province could not afford to bear on its own.

The province routinely provides operating grants to small airports. But in 2004, the Gary Doer government cancelled a capital grant program for small, off-reserve airports, a program that had funded 68 projects at a cost of $1.4 million.

The province says the Gillam Airport doesn't receive any funding and hasn't asked to be part of its airport grant program.


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