'We cannot open our communities': COVID-19 cases rise in northern Sask.

Even as Saskatchewan's premier has launched a multi-phase plan to reopen the province, communities in the north are trying to tighten restrictions and recommendations while COVID-19 spreads.

NDP, northern mayors ask province for $10M in support

Northern Saskatchewan communities need personal protective equipment, like the respirator shown here, says Rick Laliberte, the incident commander for the Northwest Communities Incident Command Centre. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Now is not the time to reopen communities in northern Saskatchewan, says one official, as the number of COVID-19 cases spread in the area. 

"The outbreak is real, it's very dangerous," said Rick Laliberte. He's the incident commander for the Northwest Communities Incident Command Centre, a partnership formed by 24 communities and the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan to address needs in the north around fighting the pandemic.

"We cannot open our communities." 

On Thursday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe unveiled the five-phase plan to reopen the province by relaxing pandemic-related restrictions.

The same day, the province reported four new COVID-19 cases in the far north (one of which is a presumptive positive), and one new case in the northern region. The cases have been identified at Patuanak on the English River First Nation, La Loche and the Clearwater Dene First Nation. 

Laliberte said the support from the provincial government has been limited for the area, which is made more vulnerable during the pandemic by housing problems and healthcare capacity. 

"We have only one ventilator for the whole region of 24 communities up here, so that's a stark reality," he said. "One of the cases we're dealing with — there's 15 people in one house, so to isolate them is a challenge."

Laliberte said municipalities, First Nations and Métis groups are working together to protect their communities — but he wants to see more from the province. He said they need personal protective equipment for people caring for others who are sick, or for those who could be exposed to the coronavirus.

They've been asking for the PPE, he said, to no avail. 

Dialogue about stopping people from undertaking non-essential travel for things like fishing trips to or through the northern regions has also been unsuccessful, he said.

"We can't control the province's jurisdiction [over] outfitting. We can't control the liquor outlets," he said, adding they also wanted fishing put on hold, but that was a no-go.

Laliberte also said the province would not fund the incident command centre nor the perimeter checkpoints. 

"All the questions we're getting from the province has been a no, no, no — and that's disheartening," he said. "We've had no support. Now they're going back to normalcy, just when an outbreak is happening in our region." 

The premier and Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr "have been in consistent communication with municipal and First Nations leaders, including those in northern Saskatchewan," a government spokesperson said in a Thursday evening email.

The province is providing "operational assistance through the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency to northern communities including emergency management training, direct access to government of Saskatchewan emergency officials to assist implementing safety and food security measures in their communities, and the delivery of emergency supplies," the spokesperson said, adding the Ministry of Health has also acquire new testing machines for La Loche and  Île-à-la-Crosse.

NDP calls on province to do more for the north 

"A crisis like this really highlights the way we've allowed ourselves to be vulnerable to a pandemic, by allowing so many people in our province to continue to live in states of relative homelessness and poverty," said Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili. 

He pointed to the situation in La Loche, which was publicly reporting 14 cases as of Thursday.

"This is something that needs immediate attention in that community — but also, if it happened there, how many other places can it happen?" 

The NDP and northern mayors, including Air Ronge Mayor Gordon Stomp, Île-à-la-Crosse Mayor Duane Favel and  Beauval Mayor Nick Daigneault, are calling on the province to provide $10 million in financial assistance for municipalities to battle COVID-19.  

They noted that the federal government has provided support, but the communities are "tapped out" and need the province to step up. 

Meili said he has been critical of the province in the past for a lack of "meaningful engagement" with leaders in the north, and he said that trend continued with Thursday's announcement of the five-phase plan.

"The lack of mention of First Nations and Métis communities of the north in the document or in the premier's comments today was a shocking omission."

In the meantime, Laliberte said local leaders and volunteers are trying to pull as many resources together as they can. 

They're getting a rapid response ready to be deployed to the smaller communities should the need arise or an outbreak occur in any region. 

"We'll do it for a Métis community, we'll do it for the municipal communities, we'll do it for a resort village, and we'll do it for First Nations communities," he said.