Indigenous communities introducing curfews, fines to limit spread of COVID-19

Mandatory curfews have been implemented in Fort McKay Indigenous communities and residents are being warned that member benefits could be lost — and even stricter provisions brought in — if they don't comply.

'I think we would be doing our people a disservice by not taking this seriously'

There is a security stop on the way into Fort McKay, Alta., located about 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. (Submitted by Ron Quintal)

Mandatory curfews have been implemented in Fort McKay, an Indigenous community in northeastern Alberta, and residents are being warned that member benefits could be lost — and even stricter provisions brought in — if they don't comply.

Determined to keep COVID-19 out of the community of about 750 people, Fort McKay First Nation and McKay Métis had put up a barrier near the entrance of the community. Members need to log in and out, and visitors are not allowed in.

Earlier this week, the nations also put a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew into place, joining a handful of other Alberta Indigenous communities that have introduced curfews.

Too many people have been leaving and entering the community, so the curfew is intended to slow down traffic, said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis.

"Night is where the biggest concern was because we still have a lot of people going out and visiting, and in certain circumstances, there's a criminal element there we're trying to mitigate," he said.

During the day, people can leave the community to get groceries and attend doctor's appointments.

Quintal said leadership is considering putting a cap on how often residents can leave, such as limiting their out-of-community movements to once a day, or possibly once or twice a week. 

Controlling access to the community will help keep its residents safe, Quintal said, adding, "I think we would be doing our people a disservice by not taking this seriously."

Ron Quintal, president of the McKay Métis, says the nation is prepared to take away member benefits if people are not abiding by the curfew. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

He said the vast majority of residents are observing physical distancing measures, but there are still a few community members who aren't taking enough precautions. 

Prior to implementing the access restrictions, some residents were "going back and forth upwards of eight, nine times a day," he said. 

The first case of COVID-19 in Fort McMurray was announced on March 19. As of Friday, there were four confirmed cases. 

The Peerless Trout First Nation, which is about 230 kilometres north of Slave Lake, Alta., also implemented a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew this week, according to an announcement on its website

Residents who don't comply will be fined $500, according to the posting. 

Quintal said leadership is prepared to take away member privileges if people do not comply with the curfew, but they haven't determined exactly which privileges will be taken away yet. 

"We would give every opportunity to remedy the situation," said Quintal. "We're asking you to co-operate, and if they don't co-operate then that's when the evaluation process would kick in."

Perla Bauld, assistant manager for the Tumbleweed General Store about six kilometres outside the Fort McKay First Nation and McKay Métis barricade, said she has already noticed a huge drop in customers. 

The store typically gets 800 transactions a day, but that is down by half, she said.

Leadership is enforcing a security checkstop and curfew in Fort McKay. (Submitted by Ron Quintal)

"It's really not much this week," said Bauld. 

Bauld lives in Fort McMurray but many of the store's staff live in Fort McKay. Those staff members living in Fort McKay are now isolating at home, she said.

"We're just four now, from 12 staff."

Harsh punishment is key, says chief

Another Indigenous community in north-central Alberta has also implemented a curfew to try and lower the amount of contact between residents. 

The 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew at Bigstone Cree Nation, about 130 kilometres northeast of Slave Lake, was implemented on Monday, said Chief Silas Yellowknee. 

Like Peerless Trout Lake, anyone who doesn't comply with the curfew can be fined $500. As well, anyone entering the community needs to self-isolate for 14 days, or they could face a $2,000 fine. 

"You got to have really strict guidelines. You got to make sure your punishment is harsh for it to work," said Yellowknee. 

He said there are about 8,000 people in the community. 

"If we get one case, we're going to lock our roads both ways," said Yellowknee. 

He said he would go as far as barricading the road with equipment and risk getting arrested if it meant stopping the spread.

"That's one thing I swore as a chief is, I will protect my people."