Indigenous in Canada turn to the land to survive coronavirus

Indigenous people describe leaving towns to live off the land, learning lessons about survival from elders.

Brandi Morin [Courtesy Amy Petrin/Al Jazeera]
Amy Petrin and her daughter Zoey outside their cabin in the wild, remote Mackenzie Delta in Canada [Photo courtesy: Amy Petrin]

Paul Petrin, an Indigenous man of Cree/Iroquois and French descent, is used to spending weeks in the wilderness in Canada’s north. For more than two decades, he has cultivated a comfortable life in a cabin near the banks of the Mackenzie River approximately three hours west of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It is a remote area accessible only by boat in the warmer months or snowmobile during the long, frigid arctic winters.

It is a way of living and being connected to and reliant upon the land that brings peace to Petrin, his family and close friends who often join him on trips to the cabin. Now, he is readying to leave his home in Inuvik to head back to the land – this time, he hopes, to get away from the threat of coronavirus.

“Everyone’s [in Inuvik] getting ready to go to their camps,” he told Al Jazeera via phone. “People are starting to panic. The shelves in the stores are getting empty.”

The town of Inuvik is home to a mostly Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit) population. There are just over 3,000 people living there. Currently there are no reported cases of the coronavirus in Inuvik, but the town is taking precautions by enforcing social distancing rules at local stores. The Northwest Territories provincial government banned all non-essential travel into the territory due to the pandemic on March 20.

Brandi Morin [Courtesy Amy Petrin/Al Jazeera]
The cabin the Petrin family has built up over the last 20 years in the wilderness along the Mackenzie River [Photo courtesy: Amy Petrin]

‘We are isolated here’

The town relies on food and other essentials being delivered by truck to the local supermarket, coming from the south on the only road in or out – the Mackenzie Highway. Food prices are high as a result, making stocking up for a quarantine expensive. 

But there is a calm in Petrin’s voice as he explains that this is something he had been expecting to happen one day. It is good to know how to live off the land, he says. People are helping each other right now, helping is a part of their culture, and no one will be left behind, he adds.

“We are so thankful for our camp. I’ve been preparing for over 20 years knowing there may be a day we’ll have to go live out in the bush … this world isn’t a pretty place. Our roadways could be cut off like that – we are isolated here as it is.”

It is not easy living at the cabin. There is constant work to do: gathering and cutting wood to keep warm, maintaining the upkeep of the cabin and harvesting food from the land, he explains. But he would not have it any other way.

“We can do whatever we want out here. The kids play. We hunt, fish, and trap. The Earth is here for us – the animals, the plants, everything. The water is good, it’s clear in spring.”

Brandi Morin [Courtesy Amy Petrin/Al Jazeera]
Paul Petrin, centre, and his wife Amy help their nephew Isaiah reel in a fishing net in the Mackenzie River [Photo courtesy: Amy Petrin]

His wife Amy, who is Inuvialuit, and their daughter Zoey, 11, join him in utilising the land and the sustenance provided by the resources there. Zoey has had a deep love for and knowledge of how to survive off the land instilled in her since she was a baby, Petrin explains.

“Zoey plucks geese. She can skin a muskrat. She smokes and makes dry meat. We go berry picking and fishing,” he adds.

Their cabin is big enough to accommodate about 15 people, comfortably. And the Petrins are taking several family and friends there with them to wait out the threat of COVID-19.

Although there is a hospital in Inuvik should anyone get sick, its facilities are limited, so many feel their best chance is to leave town and isolate themselves on the land.

According to Petrin, there are approximately 100 camps about 10km (six miles) from each other along the Raymond Channel of the Mackenzie River. He estimates that hundreds of people are either on the land already or preparing to leave for it.

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the organisation that represents collective Inuvialuit interests, announced an On the Land Fund for Inuvialuit people on March 22. The fund allocates up to $2,000 per family with an established camp or cabin – along with ready transportation and short-term financial assistance, with priority given to beneficiaries who are willing to spend 14 or more days on the land.

Empty streets

Inuvialuit elders Sarah, 64, and Hank Rogers, 67, just returned to Inuvik after hosting a cultural camp for some of the local homeless population for the past two weeks. They plan to utilise the fund to go back soon.

Their camp is located on the Big Jim Channel near the Beaufort Sea. It has been in the family for countless generations, says Hank. It is a place where the couple spends months practicing their traditional Inuit way of life.

They heard news of the coronavirus via a radio they had with them and followed daily updates. When they returned to town and found normally bustling streets empty, the seriousness of the situation hit them.

“The atmosphere was different,” says Sarah who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and is therefore particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

“We came in and usually our family comes and helps us right away, but nobody was around. They wanted to keep the social distance [because we’re elders]. We sent my daughter to the store for us and she got turned away because there were too many people in the store, so that kinda made us wonder how serious it was.”

That first night back home they received seven phone calls from family and community members pleading to go with them back to their camp. They do not want to turn anyone away, but they only have room for a certain number. 

Brandi Morin [Courtesy Amy Petrin/AL Jazeera]
The Mackenzie River at sunset. The river system is the largest river flowing into the Arctic Ocean in North America. It winds through a vast forest and tundra landscape. Petrin’s cabin, along with dozens of others, is located along its banks in a remote area outside of Inuvik [Photo courtesy: Amy Petrin]

The trip there is long. They travel by boat on the Mackenzie River navigating various water channels they have memorised over the years, and it takes several hours.

“There’s a lot of people that want to go back out on the land to feel safe. There’s fresh air there and a lot of room for social distancing,” Sarah explains. “But we don’t want to overcrowd there, either, so we’re trying to limit who we can take.”

She is also counting on her prayers to protect them. Her people have survived pandemics before, and she holds faith they will get through this one.

“Our faith is that this will pass like the TB epidemic and the other kinds of flu epidemics. They come and they go, but with faith in God, we believe in him that if anything happens, we’ll be in his hands.”

‘The land is the answer’

Meanwhile, in another remote area of Canada, approximately 6,000km (3,728 miles) southeast of Inuvik, a group of Indigenous friends are bunkering down in a camp along the North Shore and Manitoulin Island region in northern Ontario. Isaac Murdoch, an Anishinaabeg artist and cultural teacher, helps to oversee the Nimkii Aazhibikong language revitalisation and land-based practices initiative set up in 2017.

Murdoch and a group of five adults, two children and one elder are currently on lockdown in a cabin home there, but are utilising the teachings of their ancestors and the land to get through it. He says the elders have passed down knowledge through the generations to help sustain them at times like these.

“For a lot of people this is very scary, but we have to also remind ourselves that we’ve been through this and our culture has the teachings and all of those good things in our teachings to help us,” he told Al Jazeera via Facebook Messenger.

“The elders are reminding us to go back to the land. And so, for us, the land is the biggest healthcare system, and so we know that through the cultural practices of how we survived great sicknesses before, that the land is the answer.”

Brandi Morin [Courtesy Amy Petrin/Al Jazeera]
Paul Petrin hauling supplies to his cabin, which is more than 300km (186 miles) from the nearest town [Photo courtesy: Amy Petrin]

‘We are still here’

There are more than 1.5 million Indigenous people in Canada, made up of First Nations, Metis and Inuits. Most experience higher levels of poverty and have a lower life expectancy than other Canadians.

The pandemic poses particular dangers to Indigenous people because many Indigenous communities live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing, and have inadequate access to healthcare.

Some First Nations leaders across the country are closing the borders to their reserves to curb the impact of COVID-19.

The Canadian government has allocated $305 million Canadian dollars ($215m) to be split between the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples to provide relief to help fight the virus.

But First Nations leaders say it is not enough.

“We’re the most vulnerable population in the country, we’ve never been a priority,” says the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, Marlene Poitras.

“I support the nations closing their borders,” she said. “We must do whatever we have to do to protect our people. Our ancestors have fought through these pestilences in the past. We survived. We are still here. And we have to work together, listen to the medical advice out there, do our part. I believe our creator is here with us and together we will get through.”

Source: Al Jazeera