What it’s like working a checkpoint in a First Nation during COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with Tonatiuh Salinas about working overnight security at Six Nations of the Grand River — and the risk the coronavirus poses to his community
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Apr 23, 2020
Tonatiuh Salinas (centre) has been working overnight security at a checkpoint in Six Nations of the Grand River since March 30. (Courtesy of Tonatiuh Salinas)

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On March 28, the day after Six Nations of the Grand River received word of its first two COVID-19 cases and announced it would be restricting outside access to the community by the end of the month, Tonatiuh Salinas says that the reserve was “completely flooded with non-Indigenous people.” There were long lineups outside the smoke shops, and the First Nations community of more than 27,000 — the largest in Canada — was overrun with outside traffic. “It was scary,” says Salinas. “This is a sickness, and people are told to stay home, and they flooded our reservation, putting everybody at risk.”

After seeing the influx of visitors to the Haudenosaunee community, located approximately 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, Salinas and others voluntarily started erecting barricades. The band council responded on March 29 by moving to restrict access to the community immediately and asking non-essential businesses to shut down. Since March 30, Salinas, a third-year Indigenous bachelor of education student at Trent University, has been working overnight security at one of eight checkpoints. “At about three, four in the morning is when it gets really hard,” says Salinas, one of the community’s 150 or so security guards. He tries to keep himself busy by tending to a barrel fire; last week, he brought his rattle and sang songs during the night.

TVO.org spoke with Salinas about working the security checkpoint for his community, why it’s important to him, and what’s at stake.

TVO.org: How do you determine who can come in and out at the checkpoints?

Tonatiuh Salinas: We have purple passes for people who live here, but now people from off-rez are starting to get their hands on them and use them to sneak in. I had to confiscate a couple of them. I try to steer away from confrontation as much as I can. So I try not even to walk up to the [car] window if I don't have to. Some people have a couple of questions. You have to have your status card or proof of residency. Some people that aren’t from the community are still using their status card to get in and try to find gas and smokes and whatnot. So we do take it upon ourselves, if we don't recognize them — or if they haven't gone through in the past two weeks — to just stop and ask them, “Where do you live?”

TVO.org: The community reported its first death from COVID-19 on April 8. How has that affected the atmosphere in the community?

Salinas: Before we had lost somebody, there was a lot more traffic compared to after, and it was a sad feeling — because I could feel it; I knew why there wasn't traffic. It's heavy because it's somebody in your community that you see, you know. I couldn't imagine if it was my mother. I couldn't imagine if was my brothers, or my nieces who live with me — like, I don't even want to. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it: to lose them in such a way and to not be honoured and respected the way you should be when you've passed on.

TVO.org: Have most people been supportive of the security measures?

Salinas: A lot of people were supportive of it, and this was one of the first times where traditional council and elected council have seen eye to eye about a decision, which is a really pivotal moment in history. But don't get me wrong: we did experience a little bit of backlash from non-Indigenous people. You know, some jerk drove by me and said, "Don't come to Caledonia or Haldimand area. You guys are fucking banned.” I was like, “What the heck?” It was just wild. But some of our own people, too, are not able to see what this virus is doing. Some people are only thinking about money, and I understand that, because this is a scary time right now: this pandemic is now messing with people's livelihood. Some people feel like that, but the bigger picture is that this is being done for something that is much, much larger than anybody who's actually here right now. We have lost one person already, and that's one too many. How many will it take for people to see we need to stay closed until this is over, 110 per cent over, no matter how long it takes?

TVO.org: What precautions are you taking to protect yourself while working?

Salinas: Every time that me and [my brother] come home from our shift, we come in through the back door, and we wash all our clothes, and we spray down our shoes. We throw everything we were wearing in the washing machine. Then we take a quick rinse in the shower before we go back to go to sleep for the day, because we work four 12-hour shifts in a row, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

TVO.org: How are you finding ways to cope personally during this time?

Salinas: Being outside with the land is one of the things. We are so fortunate to have this one bit of land in Canada where we can do whatever we want. In my area, I live on a dead-end road, so there's no traffic, there's no nothing. There's no cars — just open fields, animals, woods, my dog. We're turning our whole entire yard into a garden, and we're getting a chicken coop. It's really making my family think about what it is that we have been doing for ourselves, what we have been deeming as important and what we haven't.

TVO.org: What is at stake for Indigenous communities if the virus gets in and infects members?

Salinas: It would be quite devastating, you know? If the sickness hit and were to take 50 of our best knowledge holders, that would be it. There aren't too many fluent speakers [of the Haudenosaunee languages spoken in the community, including Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga] left, and there aren’t that many people who know the ceremonies and songs these days. That's what's really scary, too — is that if you lose the right people, you lose so much that they know and so much that they can teach, and it would be really hard to come back from. I feel like we were starting to finally wake up, protecting what is bigger than us, with land rights and all that. What a time that all of this started to happen when people were starting to rise, you know? You just have to remember what we’re doing it for. It is for the elders; it is for the sick; it is for the kids to come. You put yourself out there so that you can save a lot more, if you can. If the elders go, then all of that teaching, all of the history that they know, goes with them; you'll never be able to get it again. It's a scary feeling to know that that could happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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