Northern legal aid lawyers are still adjusting a month after losing their office in The Pas to a layoff

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Monica Ross and two fellow lawyers based in The Pas are being relocated weeks after a fire forced them out of the local Legal Aid Manitoba office.

Ross remembers jumping in her truck and driving to the downtown building on March 20 after her assistant informed her of a fire. She arrived to see flames spitting from the top of the multipurpose building.

“I almost had a heart attack,” Ross said over the phone from The Pas, about 520 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg. “You’re just in a state of panic, because…my client records are in there – not just mine but other staff.”

About half of The Pas department’s 20 volunteer firefighters responded by around 3 a.m., said Matt Pecar, one of two volunteer captains temporarily in charge after the city parted ways with its fire chief in March.

Pecar says the fire appears to have originated in one of three apartments on the top floor of the building.

The fire was large enough that Pecar called in additional support from the fire department of the nearby Cree Nation community of Opaskwayak. Crews extinguished the fire early in the afternoon.

Water pours into the Manitoba Legal Aid offices in The Pas. A fire broke out in an apartment above the office in the early morning of March 20. (Monica Ross)

The Office of the Fire Marshal has taken over the investigation. Damage was estimated at $2 million and a provincial spokesperson said the cause of the fire was “incendiary”, suggesting it was started deliberately.

RCMP also said the fire is being investigated as an arson attack and no arrests have been made.

The Pas Friendship Center helped organize donations for the apartment tenants.

Everything from computers, desks and paper files of client information were lost at the Legal Aid Manitoba office.

“The loss to the office ended up being complete,” said Legal Aid Manitoba executive director Peter Kingsley, who traveled to The Pas from Winnipeg to support Ross and the others during the first week.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the 300 active client files had already been scanned and saved just hours before the fire, Kingsley says.

People’s lives don’t stop, and their need for services from us doesn’t stop either.– Monica Ross, Legal Aid Manitoba

Some paper files were water damaged or lost, according to Ross, who took some home with the aim of drying out and salvaging what she could. The local Crown Attorney’s office also helped provide copies of some records.

The legal aid team now has temporary office space and its lawyers also operate from home. It’s new for Ross, who has worked in the office for much of the pandemic.

Damage to the ceiling and a staircase in The Pas Legal Aid offices after the fire. (Monica Ross)

She says she’s also learning that some customers still don’t know about the new location (1 St. Goddard Ave.), despite email notices that have been sent out over the past two weeks.

This illustrates the problems that existed before the pandemic in the northern Manitoba city and surrounding areas, which may make it difficult to contact some customers.

“There’s no doubt a lot of things that we take for granted in southern Manitoba – easy access to the internet, cell phones. That kind of stuff doesn’t exist in the north,” Kingsley said. “It’s not something common in the North or available without significant cost. And that makes it much more difficult to work with clients.”

Kingsley says customers prefer face-to-face communication. Before the fire, it was not uncommon for clients to show up unannounced and ask for upcoming court dates and other updates, Ross says.

“Services aren’t easily accessible or available, or sometimes they’re sketchy, so we find that a lot of our connection is with people on the ground,” said Ross, an attorney for the family.

Despite continued challenges nearly a month after the fire, Ross says the small team has a responsibility to maintain services with customers.

“People’s lives don’t stop, and neither does their need for us to provide services for them,” she said.

“We’re trying to get things back as good as before, and it’s going to take a bit of time. But we’re all adapting and moving forward.”

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