Moose Cree chief Mervin Cheechoo has a clear message for his First Nations community of 1,400, which is spread across two towns on the Moose River, near the southern end of James Bay: “It is the responsibility of every person in Moose Factory [and] Moosonee to take heed to the advice of our health professionals,” he said during a public meeting hosted on Tuesday via Facebook to address the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t want to alarm anyone — but this can be very, very serious.”
With two cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Sudbury and another in Algoma District, two presumptive (unconfirmed) cases under monitoring in Atikokan, and, as of Thursday, one confirmed case in Timmins, remote First Nations in northern Ontario are working to prevent the spread of the respiratory disease to their communities. Leaders and health officials in the community say that prevention is key. A lack of staffing and resources, and insufficient health infrastructure — combined with the federal and provincial governments’ neglect of on-reserve housing — mean that First Nations would be acutely at risk if the virus moved to the far north.
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“Those of us in Indigenous communities, we are really at risk in a lot of things,” says Cheechoo, citing housing shortages and overcrowding in his community and others. “We have a lot of underlying issues in our lives. A lot of us are diabetics. We struggle with high blood pressure. Some people have cancer … We are at a high risk, and that’s why we’re taking all these precautionary measures.”
Anyone coming into Moose Cree First Nation from out of the country — or from any city that has had a COVID-19 case — is asked to self-isolate and monitor for symptoms of fever, shortness of breath, or coughing. Arrivals from elsewhere are told to self-monitor for symptoms. These directions are stricter than federal guidelines for a number of reasons, says Christina Linklater, community-health coordinator at the Moose Factory Public Health office: “In our small community, infrastructure is not as great as Toronto and other places that have respiratory therapists, ventilators, and all these things that we need.”
On Tuesday, the Moose Cree band council announced it would shut down all public functions, close the band office, implement staggered employee scheduling for essential services, and mobilize its departments. Some are training families on home care and setting up overflow capacity for the hospital, while others are hunting, fishing, and gathering bush food for the community. Supplies including gas, oil, propane, and wood are being stockpiled. The band council is working on its harvesters’ program, which funds travel to hunting and fishing grounds in the bush. “A good way of practising social distancing is going out on the land,” says Cheechoo. “If you want to go out onto the land, we want to make everything available for you to get there.”
Yesterday evening, Wetum winter road, which connects Moose Factory to Highway 634 and leads to Smooth Rock Falls and Highway 11, will be closed; travel has been discouraged. Some say they’ve considered making the six-hour drive south to Smooth Rock Falls to gather supplies, as retailers, such as the local Northern store — which has committed to freezing the price of goods for 60 days — may be more expensive and have more limited supplies.
Though the community has reacted positively to the preventative measures, there are concerns about medical supplies and resources. The community isn’t able to triage people coming into the community by train or plane, meaning that there is no official prioritized assessment procedure. “We do not have the manpower,” says Elaine Innes, chief of staff for Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, a health-care network for remote coastal communities on the James and Hudson bays. She notes that there is a limited supply of swabs, which have to be sent to Timmins for testing; it’s estimated that it will take between three and five days to receive results. “However, we’re trying to access more supplies,” she says. “We’re advocating for our region in consultation with NAN chief [Alvin] Fiddler.”
Jonathan Solomon, grand chief of Mushkegowuk council, a regional advocacy group for the James and Hudson Bay communities, says the fact that the federal government has deemed his region “low-risk” is “unacceptable.”
“We don't have the extra infrastructure to quarantine people, to self-isolate people,” Solomon says. “Any community that gets hit by this virus — and, because of overcrowding, not [having] safe water — it’s going to be a devastating impact to the community.” Such issues are longstanding in northern and remote First Nations, he says, and if action had been taken to improve housing and health-care infrastructure, such communities wouldn’t be nearly as vulnerable. “If, in the past, the government understood our position, our challenges, I think we would have been in a better position,” he says. On Wednesday, Mushkegowuk announced a state of emergency for its communities, citing COVID-19 and the upcoming spring floods. But Solomon remains focused on the present. “We're going to try and do our best, to do what we can with what we have.”
Ontario’s Indigenous affairs minister, Greg Rickford, tweeted on Tuesday that he is working with Nishnawbe Aski Nation to provide “immediate funding to support food and supply networks in the North. This funding will support food security in the North by purchasing food storage and staging areas, and help with transportation costs.” While the full details of the provincial plan have yet to be released, the Ontario government earmarked $4 million to assist with food and supply networks for First Nations; the federal government has pledged $305 million of its $82 billion aid package to First Nations to deal with the pandemic.
Solomon says the funds are much-needed but that questions remain as to where these funds will go and how fast they will come. “My team, they're really pushing to expedite their process and trying to make things work smoothly,” he says, adding, “It's a complicated bureaucracy that we're under.”
He is cautious about placing too much hope in government efforts. “I don't know if I can trust the system, because I’ve lived it,” he says. “I’ve looked at this for many years. I hope that they can start thinking outside the box.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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