'Not ready' to reopen: Cree and non-Indigenous leaders in James Bay united, ask for more time

"We don't have the big hospitals and specialized care. Should COVID-19 spread, we don't have the capacity or the resources to deal with it," said Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum.

Joint plan coming to protect only part of Quebec without community transmission of COVID-19

As Quebec eases restrictions, some northern leaders are calling for caution. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As some parts of Quebec begin loosening COVID-19 restrictions, the Cree and non-Indigenous Quebecers who live in the James Bay region of the province have a clear and united message — they are not ready to reopen and won't be for several weeks. 

The leaders of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government (EIJBRG), a municipal entity governing almost 300,000 square kilometres of territory in northern Quebec, are working on a joint deconfinement plan that needs to be "cautious and gradual."

"There's consensus among the [Cree and non-Indigenous] leaders — among the chiefs and the mayors — that we're not ready to open right now," said Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, who is the president of the EIJBRG.

And there is "real concern" that regional health networks aren't equipped to handle an increase in COVID-19 cases that deconfinement could bring, said Bosum, adding he doesn't foresee a willingness to ease restrictions until the end of May at the earliest and hopes the premier of Quebec is open to keeping checkpoints in place.

We are not ready to open right now.- Abel Bosum, EIJBRG president and Cree grand chief

"We don't have the luxury of all the services down South. We don't have the big hospitals and specialized care," he said.

Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, left, and Quebec Premier François Legault after signing a memorandum of understanding on a long-term economic development Grande Alliance agreement in February 2020. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"Should COVID-19 spread, we don't have the capacity or the resources to deal with it."

The Quebec government started allowing certain businesses to reopen and removing checkpoints in some regions outside of Montreal on May 4. There is a gradual plan to remove more of the restrictions in the weeks ahead. 

So far, no date has been announced for the removal of the checkpoints protecting the territory governed by the EIJBRG, something Bosum said is good news. 

The region is the only one in Quebec right now without community transmission of COVID-19, Bosum added. As of Wednesday, there were 18 cases of COVID-19 in the region: 10 in Cree communities and eight in non-Indigenous communities of the region, and all of them are related to travel outside the territory, Bosum said.

Regional leaders are working hard with public health officials to protect that "enviable" position, he added, and to come up with a deconfinement plan that makes sense. Bosum said they are very committed to working together to protect the region as a whole.  

"We need to protect ourselves and protecting the region was the best way to protect ourselves," said Bosum.

Newmont mine reopening

Manon Cyr is the vice-president of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government and the mayor of Chibougamau (Manon Cyr/Facebook)

But Bosum and Manon Cyr, the EIJBRG Vice-President, also know that deconfinement is inevitable and it's impossible to remove all of the risk. But Cyr said there are ways to reduce it.

"It's important to understand that, whether borders are closed or open, non-essential travel between cities remains prohibited," said Cyr in a press release. She is also the mayor of the non-Indigenous town of Chibougamau, located 700 kilometres north of Montreal. 

"The gradual reopening is intended for travel linked to economic recovery only." 

Last month, the provincial government added mining activity to its list of priority services. The Newmont Corporation, which operates the Eleonore gold mine near the Cree communities of Wemindji and Eastmain, has begun ramping-up operations.

"We have been working closely with the Cree First Nation grand council and the Cree health board to determine an acceptable path forward that protects our employees and communities," said Newmont spokesperson Omar Jabara in an email. 

"Just last week, we agreed a path forward and have begun ramping up operations at Eleonore."

Work on a larger deconfinement plan for the region will continue next Tuesday at another meeting of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay regional government.

First COVID-19 death 'a reality check'

Mistissini elder Emma Trapper, 76, is the first known Cree death from COVID-19. She was at a rehabilitation centre in Montreal and died on May 4. (Cree Nation of Mistissini/Facebook)

The Cree communities suffered their first COVID-19 death this week. Mistissini elder Emma Trapper died Monday after contracting COVID-19 in a rehabilitation centre in Montreal.

"That really was a shock to many. We really had a reality check. It's not just news out there. It's reality,"  said Bosum. 

"I'm really hoping people will take it much more seriously, because it could happen to any family."  

Bosum said he plans to write a letter by the end of the week to Quebec Premier François Legault, outlining the EIJBRG concerns and wishes regarding the timing of removal of checkpoints. 

And as the region hammers out what deconfinement might look like, Bosum said their ultimate success in protecting citizens will come down to each resident, worker, business and mining company doing the right thing and following the protocols that are, and will be, put in place.