'I didn't want him to go yet': N.W.T. family mourns patriarch, territory's 1st death from COVID-19

Gabe Kochon, 92, was one of Fort Good Hope's most cherished elders. He also bears the unfortunate distinction of being the Northwest Territories' first fatality from COVID-19.

Gabe Kochon, 92, was one of Fort Good Hope's most cherished elders

Gabriel Kochon, a Fort Good Hope elder known for his energy and storytelling, passed away this week after contracting COVID-19, marking the first death from the disease in the Northwest Territories. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Gabe Kochon wanted to die on the land, surrounded by his family.

Not alone in a hospital bed, like he did this week — after contracting COVID-19.

"I thought he just had a cold, that was it. We didn't expect COVID," his daughter Rose McNeely told CBC News. "As soon as they said it … I was kind of in shock. I got scared." 

Kochon, 92, a unilingual Sahtu Dene, was one of Fort Good Hope's most cherished elders. He also bears the unfortunate distinction of being the Northwest Territories' first fatality from COVID-19. 

The territory is currently experiencing its largest outbreak of COVID-19, with over 200 cases centred on its Sahtu region. Two previous outbreaks — in Yellowknife and the hamlet of Fort Liard — were quickly contained. The latest outbreak has spread to eight communities so far, with probable cases in at least one more community. 

The outbreak began when a positive diagnosis showed up in someone who attended a long-awaited hand games tournament in early August in Fort Good Hope, which has since been called a superspreader event. 

Kochon entered the tournament as a favour to his grandson, who couldn't find a replacement to join his team. 

On Aug. 10, the day after the tournament ended, Kochon developed a sniffle — something his family figured was just a cold. He started to deteriorate 24 hours later. 

When they brought him to Fort Good Hope's health-care centre, workers there said he was dehydrated and kept him for an evaluation, eventually sending him to Yellowknife by plane for more care. 

As Kochon got sicker, the N.W.T. government confirmed the first two COVID-19 cases in the community, so he took a COVID-19 test. It came back positive. 

Kochon was not vaccinated. His daughter said it was because the few times the vaccination clinic came to Fort Good Hope, he was on the land, where he spent much of time — hunting, trapping and enjoying his traditional lifestyle. 

A final video chat

Kochon battled COVID-19 at Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital for the next week, making slow progress. But it eventually started to overpower him. His doctor called the family Sunday night, telling them Kochon was struggling to breathe. It was coming down to his last hours. 

Kochon, right, spent most of his life on the land. (Submitted by Rose McNeely)

The only person allowed by Kochon's side before his death was Bryan McNeely, Rose's husband — because, he too, was in hospital with COVID-19. 

Bryan set up a FaceTime video with Kochon's eight children and their families, so they could say goodbye to their patriarch for the last time. 

"I told him 'we're praying for you' and … I didn't want him to go yet because … we won't be all together because of this COVID so try really hard to stay around," Rose said. 

Despite being in a coma, Rose said her father had tears streaming down his face during the phone call. 

Kochon's life ended only after his youngest son paid his respects. 

"I'm grateful every one of us got to talk to him, and to see him pass," she said. 

A life lived on the land 

Before succumbing to COVID-19, Kochon was known for his abundance of energy, even in old age. 

"He was 92, but it was more like he was 60," Rose said of her father. "He was still driving his four-wheeler, he [drove] around his Ski-Doo, he set nets." 

People gravitated toward Kochon, because he was a natural storyteller. 

Two weeks before his death, Rose remembers watching her father captivate an audience of 12 kids at the family's fish camp down the river, with his stories about being on the land. 

Kochon and his wife Sara Kochon, who died last May, at their 70th wedding anniversary in 2020. (Submitted by Rose McNeely)

Kochon also worked one on one with the kids to teach them the right way to set snares — so they could eventually provide for their own families. 

"They kept wanting more and more stories," she said. "He just had patience, so kids watched the little things that he does." 

She said the most important lesson her father ever taught her was to never give up her language, or way of life. So she's taken that to heart, by staying fluent in North Slavey, and teaching it to her grandchildren. 

Kochon was also the father of Leitha Kochon, the host of Leghots'edeh, CBC's North Slavey-language news and current affairs radio show.

There are no plans to bring Kochon back to the land he loved so much, Rose said, due to travel restrictions in and out of the Sahtu. Both Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake remain under a containment order issued Aug. 15, shortly after the first cases were discovered. 

The family is planning a closed casket funeral in Yellowknife, where many of his children live, once COVID-19 cases start to wane throughout the territory. 

"I just want to have a good funeral for my dad," she said. 

Rose said she wants people in the Sahtu to take COVID-19 more seriously, by wearing masks, isolating if they've travelled and to get tested as soon as possible.