Manitoba

Manitoba First Nations use perimeter security to try to keep COVID-19 out

As COVID-19 cases surge in Manitoba's north, First Nations are doing their utmost to contain the spread through strict lockdowns, and even setting up perimeter security to ensure nobody with the virus comes in or leaves unless it's absolutely essential.

Indigenous Services Canada says number one request for funding is for perimeter security

Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead said an ice road checkpoint will help keep his community members safe. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As COVID-19 cases surge in Manitoba's north, First Nations are doing their utmost to contain the spread through strict lockdowns — and even setting up perimeter security to ensure nobody with the virus comes in or leaves unless it's absolutely essential.

First Nations communities nationwide have imposed a range of travel restrictions to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19, and funding requests for perimeter security have been the top request through a federal support fund.

For Chief Eric Redhead of Shamattawa First Nation, he says it's about doing everything he can to protect his people.

In December, there were more than 400 active cases of COVID-19 and the Canadian Armed Forces had to be called in to help. Today there are just three active cases.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but the numbers are definitely encouraging," he said.

On Friday, the ice road that leads to the fly-in community, which is 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, will officially open. With that road, there will be one more way the virus could enter or leave the community.

Children from Shamattawa First Nation make the most of a COVID-19 lockdown. At the high point, there were more than 400 active cases of the virus. As of Monday, there were only three. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"We know when a flight is going to arrive, so we're able to meet that flight and do a screening. Now, the ice road where it's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we don't know who's coming and going," he said.

The community applied for funding through Indigenous Service Canada's support fund and is establishing a 24-hour checkpoint on the ice road.

"They're going to be asked the same questions that you might be getting on an aircraft. 'Are you on a mandatory quarantine? Are you fevered?' Temperatures will be taken and there will be a log of who's coming and who's going. So that's one way we're going to try and keep things under control," he said.

Shamattawa First Nation is one of many First Nations in the country using federal money to establish perimeter security. 

Perimeter security 'first defence' against virus

In fact, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) says it's the most common funding request through the Indigenous Communities Support Fund.

The fund provides Indigenous leadership with money to design and implement community-based solutions to prevent, prepare and respond to the spread of COVID-19 within their communities, ISC says on its website.

Valerie Gideon, the associate deputy minister for Indigenous Services, says it's an important way of protecting First Nations from the virus.

"For communities to be able to try and control that to-and-from traffic into community. We have still close to 350 communities [nation-wide] that have closed their borders to non-essential travel, and are really maintaining their resolve in order to protect their community members," she said in a press conference on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Pimicikamak Cree Nation has had perimeter security since the beginning of the pandemic.

Orange pylons block off the road into Pimicikamak Cree Nation. Only essential workers and medical workers are allowed in. (Submitted by Chief David Monias)

Chief David Monias says the First Nation has applied for funding to beef up its existing 24-hour security presence and keep the guards more comfortable while they monitor in the cold.

"We put in a request for our border security, because we know that's our first defence and we want to do it properly, however we haven't received the funding for it," Monias said.

The chief says the security guards work in extreme conditions and sometimes can't rely on a warm place go to.

"Sometimes the generator breaks down ... That wouldn't be acceptable anywhere else, it shouldn't be acceptable in our community," Monias said.

He says he's also nervous about pandemic restrictions easing in the south and how that could impact Pimicikamak.

"The worrisome part is that people will feel too comfortable and think that the restrictions are down, that means I don't have to social distance, I don't have to hand sanitize," he said.

Redhead says that fear has been on his mind since the beginning of the pandemic.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the north remains stubbornly high, and the majority of newly reported cases over the last three days have been in the northern health region.

As of Monday, the Canadian Armed Forces were still working with the community of Garden Hill First Nation to help establish an isolation centre, train people to manage it and deliver food hampers to people.

On Monday, there were 693 active cases in the Island Lake health district, which Garden Hill is a part of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Find her on Twitter at @r_bergen or email her at rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

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