Nova Scotia

Barricades and curfews: How some First Nations are keeping COVID-19 at bay in Atlantic Canada

First Nations in Atlantic Canada have no recorded cases of COVID-19, allaying initial fears the virus could be particularly devastating for vulnerable populations in those communities.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any First Nations in Atlantic Canada

Eskasoni First Nation security guards operate a checkpoint at the entrance to the reserve on March 24 during the locally declared state of emergency. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

First Nations in Atlantic Canada have no recorded cases of COVID-19, allaying initial fears the virus could be particularly devastating for vulnerable populations in those communities.

But stopping the spread of the virus has come with widespread restrictions on freedom on several reserves, where measures that far surpass provincial health orders have been imposed.

"It's really good that there's no virus here," said Leroy Denny, the chief of Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton.

Denny credited strict measures put in place by the band in late March, including a nightly curfew and barricades at all entrances to the community of 4,500.

The band passed a bylaw authorizing the measures under Section 81(1)(a) of the Indian Act, which allows bands to take such steps to protect people's health and "to prevent the spreading of contagious and infectious diseases."

Several other First Nations in the Maritimes, including Pictou Landing, Elsipogtog, and Neqotkuk, also known as Tobique, have also imposed curfews and checkpoints.

While there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases on First Nations in Atlantic Canada, statistics posted by Indigenous Services Canada show 129 cases on reserves in other parts of the country, including 33 in British Columbia, 20 in Alberta, 14 in Saskatchewan, 32 in Ontario and 30 in Quebec.

Eskasoni First Nation Chief Leroy Denny said the strict measures imposed during his community's state of emergency appear to be effective. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Denny said private security officers are stationed at the barricades in Eskasoni. Residents are required to get a pass to leave the community, and only for "urgent" appointments, he said.

"The first two weeks was very difficult, people trying to adjust," said Denny. "But right now, this is what people wanted. And it's running really smoothly."

Clifton Cremo of Eskasoni said it's "mentally taxing" to be a 30-year-old man and have to obey a 7 p.m.-7 a.m. curfew.

"I'd love to say that this is dumb, and we should be let out, but clearly it's effective," said Cremo.

He said reaction in the community is mixed, with some praising the band for the strict regulations and others "lamenting" the fact they can't leave.

'Incredibly diligent'

Denny couldn't say how many people from the community have been tested for the virus. The nearest testing centre is at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney, about 40 kilometres away.

But he said nurses at the Eskasoni Health Centre will soon be trained to do testing in the community.

The chief of Membertou First Nation said the band has not imposed any additional restrictions beyond those laid out by the Nova Scotia government because residents have been "incredibly diligent" in following public health orders.

"They're very mindful of the deadliness of this disease," said Terry Paul, adding there are high rates of diabetes and cancer in the community.

Membertou Chief Terry Paul said First Nations communities will take a gradual approach to relaxing restrictions around COVID-19. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

Paul said the community's health centre has been screening people and sends anyone with signs of the virus to be tested. He believed about 10 to 12 people in the community had been tested for the virus, and all have been negative.

Paul said he and other chiefs in the Atlantic region talk "regularly" about COVID-19. 

He said even once the provinces begin to relax restrictions, the First Nations may be slower to follow.

"We've taken steps to avoid as much as we can this virus," said Paul. "If the rules are let up, we're conscious of making sure it is a very gradual process."

With files from Cape Breton's Information Morning