Quebec's Indigenous leaders welcome checkpoints designed to limit COVID-19 spread

Some First Nation leaders in Quebec say they are pleased with the province's decision to forbid non-essential travel to several regions considered particularly at risk from novel coronavirus. 

Many First Nations would also like to see in-community testing: Grand Chief Ghislain Picard

Since Saturday at 4 p.m. members of Quebec's provincial police force have been stopping motorists heading to eight different regions considered at "high risk" of COVID -19, including many with large Indigenous populations. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Some First Nation leaders in Quebec say they are pleased with the province's decision to forbid non-essential travel to several regions considered especially at risk from novel coronavirus. 

Checkpoints to restrict access to eight regions — including many areas with high Indigenous populations, such as the Cree territory, Nunavik, Côte-Nord, and Abitibi-Témiscamingue — were put in place by the Quebec government Saturday, in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The regions are considered "at risk", according to Quebec Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault, because they are isolated, have a harder time accessing health services, or have an older population.

"It's an announcement that has been welcomed by many of our communities," said Grand Chief Ghislain Picard, of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador. 

He said the measure won't remove the threat to Indigenous communities, but it will help support the work already happening at the community level. Picard added that communities would also like to see in-community testing put in place. 

"There is a lot of ... people wanting to get their testing done in the community, even though the laboratories might be on the outside," said Picard.

Concerns about policing

Some Indigenous communities rely on the Sûreté du Québec for policing services. Picard said there is a concern that those duties will no longer be prioritized, as the officers are being called into action across the province to manage the checkpoints.

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, says he welcomes news that Quebec has set up checkpoints to protect regions in the North and East of the province, including Cree and Inuit regions. (Canadian Press)

"I guess the fear is that our communities serviced by the SQ, maybe we'll be a last consideration," said Picard. 

Traffic being allowed past the checkpoints include essential service workers, such as health and humanitarian workers, food and fuel distribution workers, and residents either trying to get home or heading south for medical services or essential services such as grocery stores and pharmacies. 

"The objective is to better protect people who live in those area, which are considered more vulnerable," said Guilbault on Saturday.

Checkpoints a welcome addition for Cree Nation

For Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, news of the checkpoints was also welcomed. 

Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum. (Cree Nation Government/Facebook)

"I am very happy that the rest of Quebec will be helping us better protect our region," Bosum said in a Facebook post. 

He went on to say the Sûreté du Québec is working closely with the Eeyou-Eenou Police Force to make sure that Cree residents will "always be allowed to return home." 

For the Cree communities, main checkpoints are set up at the beginning of the James Bay Highway at the Matagami gate, near the non-Indigenous communities of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, and south of Chibougamau on Highway 167. 

Authorities in Nunavik put in place travel restrictions to the fly-in only territory last Wednesday, before Quebec's announcement.

Since then, access to flights has been limited to essential workers and patients accessing essential medical care. All passengers are being screened before boarding a flight to Nunavik and if they have cold or flu-like symptoms they are being denied access. 

"Our priority is to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in Nunavik as much as possible," said Marie Rochette, director of public health, in a release. 

On Sunday, Nunavik also put in place a travel ban for everything except food deliveries and emergency medical travel to the community of Salluit, which saw its first case of COVID-19 confirmed on Saturday. A curfew has also been put in place.

Nunavik Public Security is also recommending people not travel between communities in Nunavik by skidoo.