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

Monica Ross and two attorney colleagues based in The Pas are getting resettled weeks after a fire forced them from the local Legal Aid Manitoba office.

Ross recalls hopping in her truck and driving to the downtown building on March 20 after her assistant notified her about a fire. She arrived to see flames spewing from the upper part of the multi-use building.

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

About half of the 20 volunteer firefighters with The Pas department responded at about 3 a.m, says Matt Pecar, one of two volunteer captains temporarily in charge after the town parted ways with its staff fire chief in March.

Pecar says the fire appeared to originate in one of three apartment suites on the upper floor of the building.

The fire was substantial enough that Pecar called in extra support from the fire department in the neighbouring community of Opaskwayak Cree Nation. The teams extinguished the blaze early that afternoon.

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

The office of the fire commissioner took over the investigation. Damage was estimated at $2 million, and a provincial spokesperson said the cause of the fire was “incendiary,” suggesting it was set deliberately.

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

The Pas Friendship Centre has helped organize donations for tenants from the apartment suites. 

Everything from computers, desks and hard copy files of client information were lost in the Legal Aid Manitoba office.

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

Luckily, the vast majority of the 300 active client files had already been digitized and backed up just hours before the fire, Kingsley says. 

People’s lives don’t stop, and their need for us to provide services 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 her in an attempt to dry out and salvage what she could. The local Crown attorney’s office has helped provide copies of some files as well.

The legal aid team now has a temporary office space and its lawyers are also conducting business from home. That’s new for Ross, who worked from the office through much of the pandemic.

Damage to ceiling and a stairway in the The Pas legal aid offices after the fire. (Monica Ross)

She says she is also learning some clients still don’t know about the new location (1 St. Goddard Ave.), despite email notices that went out over the past couple of weeks.

That illustrates issues that existed pre-pandemic in the northern Manitoba town and surrounding area that can make staying in touch a challenge with some clients.

“There is no question that a lot of the things we take for granted in southern Manitoba — easy internet access, cellphones. That sort of thing is non-existent in the north,” Kingsley said. “It is not something that is common in the north or available without significant cost. And that makes it much harder to work with clients.”

Kingsley says clients prefer face-to-face communication. Before the fire, it wasn’t uncommon for clients to pop in unannounced and ask for next court dates and other updates, Ross says.

“Services are not readily 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, a family lawyer.

Despite continuing challenges almost a month since the fire, Ross says the small crew has a responsibility to maintain services with clients.

“People’s lives don’t stop, and their need for us to provide services doesn’t stop either,” she said.

“We’re trying to get things back to as good as we were, and that’s going to take a little bit. But we’re all adapting and moving forward.”

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