From a checkstop to Cree radio messaging, how a Manitoba First Nation is bracing for COVID-19

A remote Manitoba First Nation is hoping to get ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic by closing off access to its community and relying on hunters for some food.

Overcrowding a major concern in Cross Lake, other First Nations as officials warn to social distance 

Cross Lake, shown here in a 2017 file photo, is taking steps to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to the First Nation. (CBC)

The messages in Cree started hitting the local TV and radio airwaves in Cross Lake, Man., last week.

Band members are being warned about the COVID-19 pandemic, as the leadership in the community tries to plan ahead and prevent an outbreak from starting in the northern Manitoba First Nation.

Cross Lake Chief David Monias is using the 2009 H1N1 pandemic as a roadmap to get ready for the coronavirus that he worries could spread rapidly in Cross Lake, due to overcrowding on his First Nation.

He estimated about 8,500 live on the reserve right now, and said it's not uncommon for more than 10 people to be sleeping in one home. He believes about half of the on-reserve band members live in an overcrowding situation.

"It concerns me because it takes one person to be infected or exposed — that will put everybody at risk in their homes. There are some people that are actually taking shifts sleeping in their homes because there's just not enough room," he said.

"It's pretty near impossible to actually keep your distance from your children and the people that you're living with, and trying to make sure that you keep those people at home."

Cross Lake has set up a 24-hour checkstop. (Submitted by David Monias)

The community, located about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg, now has a 24-hour checkstop set up to ensure only Cross Lake residents and essential services staff enter the reserve. 

"We quickly found out that we needed to operate simply on our own," said Monias, who added the plan is to keep residents from leaving the community unless it's for an emergency.

The First Nation has closed its gaming centre, shut down its school and locked the band office doors to visitors. Elders are being told to order groceries over the phone and hunters are being encouraged to gather extra meat to help feed community members.

Food security could become a concern, said Noretta Miswaggon, a member of the band's executive council. 

"What you have in your fridge? Do you have the berries you picked last year? Do you have some of the fish? Do you have moose meat that you killed in the fall? Do you have rabbits that have been killed throughout the winter?"

Members of the Cross Lake gather cedar on Wednesday, as the First Nation takes steps to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading to the community. (Submitted by Noretta Miswaggon)

She and other community members were in the bush Wednesday gathering another item important to their community — cedar. She says it's used as an air purifier, but most of it will be traded for sage to smudge with.

Miswaggon said some people in the community are scared.

"But for the most part, I hear people talking about how we will be fine because everything that we need to survive is right there in our backyard. We're not surrounded. We're not like the city," she said.

"I think we'll be fine. We just have to have faith."


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email: