Virtual sharing circles among efforts to help ease COVID-19 isolation in northern Quebec

Health officials in northern Quebec have started organizing virtual sharing circles as a way to help people cope while self-isolating or struggling because of COVID-19. 

Hundreds of Cree currently self-isolating due to outbreak, COVID-19 restrictions

'Rainbow of Hope' beaded by Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash. The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay has started organizing virtual sharing circles to help hundreds of people currently self-isolating in Cree communities cope. (CBHSSJB/Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash)

Health officials in northern Quebec have started organizing virtual sharing circles as a way to help people cope while self-isolating or struggling because of COVID-19. 

A recent outbreak of the virus in two Cree communities mean hundreds of people are currently under self-isolation orders in Oujé-Bougoumou and Mistissini, as well as other Cree communities due to regular COVID-19 restrictions in place. 

"Our gatherings are very important, but right now we're challenged with that," said Virginia Wabano, who is regional proximity director for inland communities for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).

"These virtual sharing circles are [a way] for them feel they're still gathering." 

Virtual sharing circles are [a way] feel they're still gathering.- Virginia Wabano, CBHSSJB

As of Wednesday, 34 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Oujé-Bougoumou, Mistissini and the nearby non-Cree town of Chibougamau, all linked to three gatherings and parties that happened between Dec. 31 and Jan. 7.

More than 300 people have been tested as a result of this recent outbreak, with 74 test results still not confirmed. 

Viriginia Wabano of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, says gatherings are very important for the Cree and virtual sharing circles are a way for them to feel like they're still gathering. (CBHSSJB/Marcel Grogorick)

More restrictions 

Both Mistissini and Oujé-Bougoumou have moved into phase one of the Cree deconfinement plan, which stipulates that gatherings outside one's family 'bubble' are forbidden and a curfew is in place, among other measures. The largest of the Cree communities, Chisasibi, has also put in place a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

As well, most of Quebec is now at the highest COVID-19 alert level, which is referred to as the red zone. Cree people are required to self-isolate for 14 days after travelling to an "at-risk" red zone. And some Cree communities are without grocery stores, so residents must travel to at-risk zones to buy food and other essential items and must isolate when they get back to the community. 

All this means more and more people in all the Cree communities are self-isolating and without their usual connections to family and community.

In Oujé-Bougoumou alone, close to 250 of its 900 residents have been ordered to self-isolate, according to officials. In Mistissini, more than 170 people are currently under mandatory self-isolation.

"People that are in isolation ... need to express their emotions. Since COVID-19, there [are] a lot of mental challenges across the country," said Wabano.

The sharing circles are being organized in different groups: for people in isolation, youth aged 15 to 29, elders aged 55 and up, family members of positive cases and the general population. 

"It's done in a confidential manner with a psychologist or ... with a traditional therapist," said Wabano, adding translation into Cree is also available. 

Other measures to help break isolation

In both Mistissini and Oujé-Bougoumou, the band offices are helping those in isolation get groceries, if needed.

The Mistissini local health and social development department has sent out a list of trained counsellors, or life coaches, available to residents who are struggling or dealing with anxiety. 

"We have a long list of people that are in isolation now, probably for another 10 to 14 days, and we want to ensure they all feel support as well as just to feel hope," said Ashley Iserhoff, director of health and social development for the Cree Nation of Mistissini. 

Residents are also being encouraged to share photos of where they go to find peace on the department's Facebook group.

The Mistissini local health and social development department is encouraging people to share photos in their Facebook group of places where they love to spend time and explain why. (Facebook)

At the start of the pandemic, the CBHSSJB launched Wiichiwaauwin Helpline, a phone service offering mental health and social support 24/7 in English and Cree. The number to call is 1-833-632-4357.

"Community members can call if they're feeling anxious or if they need someone to talk to," said Wabano.

The CBHSSJB is also offering technical support in order to help people connect to the sharing circles, said Wabano.

With files from Jaime Little