As COVID-19 spreads across the north, Thompson feels the social and economic pain

As COVID-19 spreads across Manitoba's north, it's Thompson's turn to feel the pain — even though most of the new cases are elsewhere in the Northern health region.

Manitoba's northernmost city isn't a COVID-19 hotspot, but nonetheless is suffering from the northern spike

The Robert Bateman wolf mural along Spirit Way is the most recognizable landmark in Thompson. Manitoba's northernmost city faces unique pandemic challenges. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

When COVID-19 cases spiked in August in southwestern Manitoba, Brandon suddenly became the pandemic capital of Canada.

In November, widespread community transmission in Winnipeg allowed Manitoba's capital to claim that ignominious title.

Now, as the virus spreads above the 53rd parallel, it's Thompson's turn to feel the pandemic pain — even though most of the new cases in Manitoba's vast and sparsely populated Northern health region are not found within in its largest city.

"We're lumped into one region even though we're hundreds of miles apart," said Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook, who's been forced to contend with interconnected economic, public health and social crises two years into her first term.

Thanks to the persistence of dark-red pandemic restrictions in northern Manitoba, retailers in Thompson are closed at a time of year when the opening of winter roads would otherwise allow them to sell big-ticket items like appliances and furniture to customers driving in from isolated Indigenous communities.

Pandemic lockdowns at many of those same communities as well as road-accessible First Nations have swollen the population of homeless people in Thompson.

The absence of indoor recreation, shopping and dining, meanwhile, exacerbated the sense of isolation for everyone in Thompson during what usually is the coldest stretch of winter.

"We might suffer a bit more than the south because our options are more limited," Smook said.

Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook says while businesses are closed across Manitoba, her city is feeling the pain at a time when it ususally welcomes visitors from across the north. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

While only about 13,700 people live in Thompson, the city serves as the economic centre of a market area with approximately 55,000 people.

The loss of the winter-road shopping season, combined with the Christmas retail lockdown, may be too much for independent Thompson retailers, who can not tough out the ongoing lockdown the way a big-box chain can, said Volker Beckmann, a lifelong Thompson resident and semi-retired designer who serves on the city's chamber of commerce.

"A lot of small businesses that go under, if that business closes, the family goes away and nobody replaces them," Beckmann said. "That's the danger as this thing drags on."

Echoing the desires of business people in Flin Flon and The Pas, he said it would would preferable if public health authorities applied tougher restrictions only to northern health districts where COVID-19 cases are spiking.

"What goes on in the eastern side of northern Manitoba — in Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point [First Nations]— doesn't necessarily affect Thompson because the people don't interact," Beckmann said.

"We need to let the government know they need to look at the north as different regions."

Steven Cook says Thompson homeless shelters are often full, forcing him to stay in blue bins or ATM booths. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Thompson does, however, interact with relatively close First Nations such as Pimicikamak, Norway House, Nisichawayasihk and Bunibonibee.

Most northern Indigenous communities operate checkpoints at their borders, impose curfews on their residents and are try to ensure people don't gather in large groups during the pandemic and potentially spread COVID-19.

"A lot of our outlying communities are on lockdown. You can't get in or out. They have stiff curfews. If you're caught doing something wrong, you're basically banned from your community," Smook said. 

"That does increases our downtown population here and the ability to look after people isn't as great as it can be as when it's not a pandemic."

Homeless population increasing

A count of chromic homeless people in Thompson earlier in the pandemic found 82 people most at risk, all but four of whom Indigenous, said Shyanna Lynxleg, a Thompson resident who manages urban initiatives for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a political advocacy organization representing 23 northern First Nations.

MKO offers isolation space for 15 people in Thompson, has room for 15 more and helped the local YWCA create isolation spaces for 24 people.

The Northern health region also operates isolation spaces for homeless people and the City of Thompson is also involved in alternative isolation accommodations.

Still, dozens of homeless men and women congregate daily in large groups in the downtown Thompson parking lot between the Walmart and provincial liquor store. 

Steven Cook, from Mosakahiken Cree Nation, was among the crowd on Sunday. He said homeless shelters are often full, forcing him to crawl into a blue bin at night or sleep inside an ATM booth.

Shyanna Lynxleg, urban initiatives manager for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 23 northern First Nations. MKO has stepped in to create more isolation spaces for homeless people in Thompson, most of whom are Indigenous. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Lynxleg said it's very difficult to get homeless people with mental health and addictions to agree to isolation protocols, let alone observe them.

"You see a lot of people hanging around," she said of downtown Thompson. "They're co-mingling and they're sharing cigarettes, sharing bottles. That's potential for spread, but there's nothing we can do legally to force them to stay within an isolation unit."

A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared at Wapanohk Community School in Thompson. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Mayor Smook said she's been asking the provincial government since March to provide "boots on the ground" to help enforce pandemic measures, and not just among the homeless.

"We still have large groups that hang around together," she said, adding messaging is less effective in a region where fewer people have access to the internet.

"We basically need somebody up here that's willing to walk around and not be scared to give tickets. I'd love to be sworn in just to be able to do that."

Manitoba opens its third vaccination clinic on Monday at Thompson Regional Community Centre. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Since the start of the pandemic, a total of 550 people in the Thompson-Mystery Lake health district tested positive for COVID-19. One patient died.

As of Sunday, there are 111 active cases in the Thompson area and there were outbreaks in the city at Wapanohk Community School and Northern Spirit Manor, an assisted living facility.

Beckmann, who is over 70, said he's eager to see the inside of a vaccine clinic that opens Monday at Thompson Regional Community Centre.

Lifelong Thompson resident Volker Beckmann says it's unfair for public health authorities to impose the same regulations on a region as vast as Northern Health. He says people in his city interact with nearby communities but not those further east, where COVID-19 cases are spiking. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"I have to be very careful, so the sooner I get the vaccine the better," he said.

This is the third large vaccine supersite to open in Manitoba, after facilities in Winnipeg and Brandon.

The province originally planned to open it at Thompson's airport, seven kilometres north of the city, but changed their minds after Smook and other officials noted many potential clients and workers at the clinic would not be able to afford the $25 cab fare.



Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.