Kátł'odeeche Fırst Natıon refusing out-of-territory visitors over COVID-19 fears

Chief April Martel says they frequently see Alberta licence plates on the reserve, which is concerning given the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases that province is seeing.

First Nation once again blocking non-N.W.T. licence plates after seeing many from Alberta, Saskatchewan

April Martel, chief of Kátł'odeeche Fırst Natıon, stands in front of a checkpoint earlier this year. Worried about the spread of COVID-19, she says they're refusing out-of-territory visitors, after seeing many Alberta and Saskatchewan plates on the reserve. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The Kátł'odeeche Fırst Natıon near Hay River, N.W.T., is closing its reserve to out-of-territory visitors again, due to the fear of COVID-19.

"We're looking out for the protection of our community," said Chief April Martel.

The First Nation put a message out on social media on Thursday saying anyone with licence plates from out of the N.W.T. will be denied access to the reserve. 

Martel said it was council's decision due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's out of control right now," she said. "You're opening this gate and allowing people to go everywhere. It's scary. It's still scary for a lot of people. We're still in a pandemic right now."

Martel said she frequently gets calls from First Nation members about Alberta and Saskatchewan licence plates on the reserve. She said many people come to fish, claiming they have Treaty 8 rights to be there.

"This is my reserve, so if I tell you to leave, you leave."

The First Nation went into full lockdown back in March, at the height of the pandemic, blocking anyone who could not prove band membership. Martel says with the reserve's proximity to High Level, Alta. — about three hours away — she once again worries about COVID-19 making it onto the reserve. Alberta has recently seen a spike in cases.

"All the people are coming in from Alberta and driving around and we don't want to get anyone sick, especially our elders."

A security guard asks the driver for proof of band membership at a checkpoint at the entrance to the reserve earlier this year. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The chief said she still sees people disobeying physical distancing requirements set by the N.W.T. public health office, and people who aren't in self-isolation when they should be. She said that's left people on the reserve scared — particularly staff at its Ehdah Cho Store, who need to sanitize each time someone from off the reserve comes in.

"They're scared right now … because they can't keep track of all of that. It's just too crazy."

Martel said the First Nation is erecting a new sign asking out-of-territory visitors to turn back, which will remain up until they feel there is no longer an immediate risk of COVID-19 entering the reserve.

"You look at our medical supplies and our health-care system and we won't be able to keep up with that," she said.

"I just want everyone to be safe."

With files from Anna Desmarais