COVID outbreak: Indigenous community urges Canada to send in army

Bearskin Lake First Nation in northern Ontario says nearly 50 percent of residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force unload a Chinook helicopter full of COVID relief supplies
Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force unload a Chinook helicopter as part of COVID-19 relief efforts in Pauingassi First Nation, Manitoba, on February 6, 2021 [File: Capt Aaron Stafrace/RCAF/Handout via Reuters]

A remote Indigenous community in northern Ontario has called on the Canadian military to send personnel to help respond to a COVID-19 outbreak that Bearskin Lake First Nation says now has infected nearly half of its residents.

Located 425km (264 miles) north of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Bearskin Lake First Nation is accessible by air throughout the year and via an ice road during the winter.

The community declared a state of emergency on December 29 due to the coronavirus outbreak, and said on Monday that 174 residents – nearly 50 percent of its on-reserve population – have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The virus is vicious, and it does not discriminate,” Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said in a statement, calling on Canada to deploy the military to assist the community.

“Our babies and children, mothers, and Elders have all been hit. We are reeling at the speed of the spread of this potentially deadly disease. This outbreak has stretched our resources and our capacity to the point of breaking.”

When the pandemic broke out in 2020, Indigenous leaders in Canada warned that their communities could be hit harder due to systemic problems, including a lack of clean water on some reserves, limited access to health care and medical personnel, and overcrowded housing.

Others had raised fears that the proximity of expansive work camps – populated by a transient workforce – to Indigenous communities could lead to COVID-19 outbreaks and risked putting a strain on local health networks.

In some instances, First Nations communities erected barricades to block access to reserves in an effort to prevent residents, especially elders, from contracting the virus.

Resources deployed

On Sunday afternoon, Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu said on Twitter that the department had approved $378,643 ($483,000 Canadian dollars) “for a number of resources” for Bearskin Lake First Nation, in addition to other support during the past month.

“The funding approved today will support food security, PPE (personal protective equipment), funding for local community COVID workers, and supplies like wood cutting and collection, as requested by the community,” Hajdu said.

Additionally, in coordination with local and regional authorities, the minister said Indigenous Services Canada had mobilised a coronavirus rapid response team to the community, as well as deployed three primary care nurses, a paramedic and two environmental health officers.

However, Bearskin Lake First Nation said on Monday that “there is now an urgent need for outside health and other workers to help operate the community’s crisis care system around the clock” because most households are under quarantine and require deliveries of food, water, chopped wood and medicine.

“We have requested financial and other supports from the federal government, but we have been told that the assistance we will get is minimal,” said Kamenawatamin, the chief.

“We will not get funds to bring crisis personnel to Bearskin Lake – which signals to us that we are on our own. I must now implore Canada and Canadians for their assistance and request that the military be deployed to us immediately to assist us.”

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told Al Jazeera on Monday that it was working with Bearskin Lake leaders, as well as local and regional health authorities, “to support the community to implement immediate measures to stop further spread and provide resources and supports required to protect residents and ensure health protocols are effectively undertaken”.

“ISC is reassessing the situation daily,” Megan MacLean said in an emailed statement. “Given the recent communications from the Chief and community about supports, we are continuing our assessments and hope to provide another update soon.”

She said the department allocated more than $3.37m ($4.3m Canadian dollars) directly to Bearskin Lake First Nation’s COVID-19 response since March 2020.

MacLean also said Indigenous Services Canada approved more than $19.77m ($25.2m Canadian dollars) for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority to provide “isolation capacity, supplies and transportation of materials” to 22 communities, including Bearskin Lake, in 2021-2022.

Military assistance

The Department of National Defence referred Al Jazeera to Public Safety Canada, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday afternoon on whether military personnel would be sent to the community.

In December 2020, the Canadian government sent the military to help a remote First Nations community in the central province of Manitoba handle a COVID-19 outbreak after Shamattawa First Nation requested help.

Canada sent military personnel to conduct coronavirus contact tracing and other health checks in Garden Hill First Nation, more than 600km (373 miles) north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in January 2021. The next month, the military was also deployed to Pauingassi First Nation, about 280km (174 miles) from Winnipeg, to respond to a surge in cases there.

As of December 30, Indigenous Services Canada said 1,559 active COVID-19 cases were reported on First Nations reserves across the country.

The department also said that as of December 14, the rate of reported active cases among First Nations people living on-reserve was 198.9 per 100,000 – twice the rate in the general Canadian population.

Source: Al Jazeera