Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw First Nation near Antigonish shuts stores, school after COVID-19 cases

Paqtnkek First Nation has closed a school, daycare and stores to prevent virus spread following an outbreak that started at St. Francis Xavier University.

The chief of Paqtnkek First Nation says they are taking extra steps to prevent virus spread

An aerial view of Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Nation, which is about 25 kilometers east of Antigonish, N.S. (Dennis Pictou)

A First Nation in Nova Scotia has largely shut down and is asking people to stay home after COVID-19 cases surfaced in the Mi'kmaw community.

Tma Francis, the chief of Paqtnkek First Nation, said Monday that three people began to get sick last week after visiting a Dooly's billiards bar and a pub on Dec. 4 in Antigonish, N.S., which is about 25 kilometres away.

Both locations have been listed as possible COVID-19 exposure sites, and are among the dozens that have been reported in Antigonish and across the province connected to an outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University.

By Friday, all three people had tested positive and Francis said the band office sprang into action.

"We took it upon ourself here in Paqtnkek to do our due diligence and to try to contain and take a hold of this COVID-19 in our community and try to shut it down," Francis told CBC's Maritime Noon on Monday.

They've asked all vendors, stores, dispensaries, daycares and the school on the First Nation to close, Francis said, and the band office and entertainment centre is also shuttered for now.

Francis wrote to the Strait Regional Centre for Education informing them that Paqtnkek students attending their schools won't be attending class in person for the remainder of this semester.

In the letter, Francis requested arrangements be made to support students learning from home. He also said the move was needed due to the province identifying the Mi'kmaq as a "vulnerable population susceptible to the adverse effects of the pandemic."

A convenience store is still open, while Francis said some fast-food places like Mary Brown's are drive-thru or pick up only. 

The Paqtnkek Education Centre is one of the many buildings closed temporarily as the community deals with COVID-19 cases on the First Nation. (Tanya Francis)

Residents are also asked to stay within their "family bubble" and stick close to home, Francis said, as well as take a rapid test every day if they can while also booking a PCR test.

"Even today we're passing out rapid test kits. Saturday here at the health centre, we had a clinic and we had about 200 community members get tested," Francis said.

Francis said as a Mi'kmaw First Nation, the band is in charge of contact tracing and they have been busy following up with close contacts of the three positive cases.

Although Francis is a close contact himself, he said he's tested negative so far.

The First Nation is home to about 450 people, many of whom are children under 16, Francis said. 

Their vaccination rate as of Monday was around 60 or 70 per cent, lower than the provincial average of around 82 per cent. But Francis said that number is now climbing because people are taking the step more seriously.

Since many Paqtnkek front-line workers are isolating themselves while they await test results, Francis said they've had lots of volunteers come in from nearby communities, which is appreciated.

"We would take any help we can get. I mean ... if there's anybody that could help us, I wouldn't turn them away," Francis said.

The province reported 114 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the third day in a row the province has reported more than 100 cases per day.

Physical distancing and capacity restrictions were also announced Monday, and the first cases of the Omicron variant has been confirmed. 

With files from CBC's Maritime Noon