Manitoba

Advocates renew calls for northern travel restrictions after Fox Lake Cree Nation lockdown

Manitoba First Nations political advocacy groups are calling on provincial public health officials to reinstate travel restrictions to the north after a First Nation in the region went into lockdown amid COVID-19 concerns.

No one allowed in or out of Fox Lake Cree Nation's Bird reserve after traveller tests positive for COVID-19

Fox Lake Cree Nation says public health officials informed the community on Friday that someone who was in Gillam from Aug. 12-21 has tested positive for COVID-19. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba First Nations political advocacy groups are calling on provincial public health officials to reinstate travel restrictions to the north after a First Nation in the region went into lockdown.

The Fox Lake Cree Nation initiated the lockdown after it says someone who travelled to the nearby town of Gillam later tested positive for COVID-19.

On Saturday, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs released joint statements calling on public health officials to reinstate a travel restriction that was terminated on June 26.

"Our Chiefs have taken every precaution to ensure the safety and well-being of their community members, and we are calling on the Manitoba government to work with First Nations leadership to reinstate the order prohibiting travel to northern Manitoba," MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee stated in the release.

"The call to reinstate the northern travel order is a proactive measure by First Nations leadership to reduce and minimize risk the spread of COVID-19 as access to primary health care is not comparable to our neighbours in the south."

Was visiting family

Fox Lake Cree Nation informed its band members in a community update Friday of a report from public health officials that a person who tested positive was in Gillam, which is about 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg, from Aug 12 to 21.

The community's emergency crisis team planned to meet Saturday morning.

The person doesn't live in Gillam or Fox Lake but had travelled by vehicle to Gillam to visit family, it said.

It added that the person was in Gillam — about 50 kilometres from Fox Lake — when they were notified they were a close contact of a confirmed case in the Prairie Mountain Health region, in southwestern Manitoba.

The person started self-isolating while in Gillam and developed symptoms, and the positive test was confirmed on Friday, the notice says. The Fox Lake notice said the person didn't attend any businesses while in Gillam and didn't come into contact with anyone from the Cree Nation.

As of Saturday, the Manitoba government was not reporting any active cases in the Northern Health region.

A river on Fox Lake Cree Nation. No one is currently allowed to enter or leave Fox Lake's Bird reserve after someone who was in the nearby town of Gillam tested positive for COVID-19. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Fox Lake has put its Bird reserve under lockdown. No one is allowed to enter or leave the reserve.

"Everybody here is taking it seriously," said Tanya Wavey, a Fox Lake resident. "I sure am scared."

Eerily quiet

Wavey said her community is eerily quiet right now, with no one spending much time outside.

"It's a weekend too. The kids are usually out riding their bikes," she said, adding a checkstop has been set up.

Keeping COVID-19 out of First Nations has been a major concern from the start of the pandemic. Many First Nations in Manitoba set up checkstops early on and created new rules such as banning visitors from their reserves in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

Crowded housing conditions and poor health infrastructure could lead to devastating outbreaks, community leaders have previously warned.

The Fox Lake notice said there was no connection between the positive COVID-19 case with employees of Manitoba Hydro or the Keeyask dam site.

In May, First Nations blocked access to the site after Manitoba Hydro kept staff at the project, despite concerns about workers bringing COVID-19 into the area. The blockades led Hydro to scale back work at the site.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of  the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said in a statement that First Nations are in close proximity to resource extraction and infrastructure projects that are deemed essential by the province. 

"These services must be consistent with pandemic planning protocols established by our First Nations to ensure that the work is conducted in the safest manner possible."

About the Author

​Austin Grabish landed his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

With files from Rachel Bergen

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