Move elders out of Shamattawa now, COVID-afflicted First Nation urges prime minister

A remote fly-in First Nation in Manitoba, where COVID-19 cases are surging, is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for urgent help to move its elders out.

There are 264 confirmed cases in the community of 1,300

Shamattawa, a community of about 1,300, now has 264 cases of COVID-19, its leaders say. (CBC)

A remote fly-in First Nation in Manitoba, where COVID-19 cases are surging, is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for urgent help to move its elders out.

There are 264 confirmed cases in Shamattawa, a community of about 1,300 people, according to a letter sent Tuesday by Shamattawa Chief Eric Redhead and Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a political advocacy group that represents 30 northern Manitoba First Nations.

Just a few weeks ago, in mid-November, there were only a handful of cases on the reserve, which is about 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The Canadian Armed Forces announced Saturday it would be deploying six Canadian Rangers to help in any way it can in the community. Five members of the Red Cross were also deployed on the weekend.

But Redhead and Settee said the issue needs to be escalated and are calling on Trudeau to help airlift seniors to communities where they are closer to health services.

"We are asking for immediate assistance from your office to help us evacuate the elders of Shamattawa," the letter states. "Unfortunately, this is a matter of life and death."

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, posted on Facebook that he, too, "will be writing to the prime minister to urge him to take action."

'Disaster waiting to happen'

The remoteness of Shamattawa means the community heavily relies on medevacs to transport people out of the community if they are experiencing any medical distress.

That option could soon become problematic, the letter from Redhead and Settee says.

"Now that it is December, the weather is unpredictable, and medevacs are not always able to land safely. This is a disaster waiting to happen."

Dozens of people in the community are currently isolating elsewhere and about 20 are in quarantine in the area's gymnasium.

"Health infrastructure and services are not set up to assist Shamattawa with an outbreak this large in scale," the letter says.

"We know from the data in Manitoba that First Nations people are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The people from our communities are being hospitalized and put into intensive care units at higher rates than non-Indigenous Manitobans."

Ottawa working with communities: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday Ottawa is working closely with communities in crisis across Canada, including Shamattawa.

"I am really concerned, as you are, about Shamattawa," Trudeau said during the Assembly of First Nations' annual general meeting, which is being held virtually this week.

"That's why Minister [of Indigenous Services Marc] Miller has been in direct contact with Chief Redhead, and we're going to continue to look at them and support them in what they need, including hearing their concerns around evacuation of elders."

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Tuesday people in Shamattawa don't have time to waste waiting.

"They need to allow us to do what we need to do, and not be obstacles," Dumas said. 

"I'm glad that the prime minister is listening, and I challenge Minister Miller as well to continue on supporting the leadership and supporting our initiatives in Manitoba and elsewhere, for that matter, so that we could be as successful as possible."

Niki Ashton, the NDP member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, slammed Ottawa's response in a statement on Tuesday. The promise of six Canadian Rangers won't be enough to help the community, she said, calling on the federal government to send in more military support to help with testing, tracing and self-isolation infrastructure.

She also urged the government to help ensure enforcement of public health orders and evacuation of vulnerable people.

"This is a community that has virtually no health resources to deal with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada," Ashton said the written statement.

"Time is of the essence. The federal government must immediately pull out all the stops to save the lives of the people of Shamattawa."

With files from Karen Pauls