Sask. First Nation chief prepared for COVID-19 pandemic weeks before it hit

Late last week when semi-trailers pulled up to the grocery store on Pasqua First Nation and started off-loading packages of cleaning supplies, medicine, toilet paper and dry food, people started wondering what it was all for.

Chief has been monitoring new cases daily, plans to block entry to reserve if spread worsens

Chief Matthew Peigan of Pasqua First Nation says he's been following the coronavirus since its origins in Wuhan, China, and anticipated the global outbreak we are now facing. (CBC)

Late last week when semi-trailers pulled up to the grocery store on Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan and started off-loading packages of cleaning supplies, medicine, toilet paper and dry food, people started wondering what it was all for.

The first case of COVID-19 had just been reported in the province and a collective sense of panic had gripped many in the province and on the reserve.

"People thought we were going into lockdown," said Chief Matthew Peigan.

When a picture of the boxes being carried to two seacans outside the store was posted on the First Nation's private Facebook page, speculation spread.

Peigan has since set the record straight — there was no lockdown. Rather, Pasqua First Nation is taking precautions, and a lot of them.

No one seemed to take it really serious,-  Pasqua Chief Matthew Peigan

The band has enough supplies to clean 220 houses. It also has hand sanitizer, gloves, gowns, masks and meds to distribute to about 800 people who live on the reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley.

"If things get very, very critical, we've also ordered dry goods," Peigan said.

If a two-week quarantine is necessary, people shouldn't need to leave the reserve, he said.

He had the foresight to get in the order a week-and-a-half ago before the first case of COVID-19 hit, as he imagined that people would start panic-buying and stockpiling goods, which did happen an hour away in the city of Regina about a week after the order was placed.

It's one of many plans, some down to minute details, that Peigan started making months ago.

"We're trying to do as much as we can. Sometimes we stumble and we just can't address everything, but in doing that we are trying to alleviate some of the concerns," Peigan said.

2 months of monitoring COVID-19

Peigan knows the exact date when he started digging into the coronavirus — it was January 7, 2020, the same day that the mystery illness that was spreading in Wuhan, China, got a name: a novel coronavirus, initially known as 2019-nCoV and now known as SARS-CoV-2 — though to most people it's just the coronavirus, or the disease it causes, COVID-19. 

That week, Peigan sent an email about regional preparations for when the illness arrived.

At the time, he was told by the tribal council that covers his region that COVID-19 was low risk in Canada.

"My comment was that, 'That doesn't matter. The way that this seems is that we're going to be impacted anyway and that we should be getting ready.' And that's where I left it because no one seemed to take it really serious," he said. 

The pandemic inventory is starting to be set up on Pasqua. A group of women are bagging the first of care packages for delivery of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting supplies. (Submitted by Cathie Johns-Wick)

That message of low risk — both from the government and in the public discourse — continued for weeks, but Peigan did not let that keep him from planning as he monitored the trends internationally.

"Even though I was watching it, I was also advising my staff at Pasqua First Nation as to the severity of this and that we should start doing preparation. We initiated our emergency response," Peigan said.

The reserve already had a plan for pandemic response that was put together by local first responders back in 2009 when the H1N1 flu pandemic swept the globe. Peigan said the 2009 pandemic had "basically no impact" on the community, but he learned from it that people will have questions that chief and council should be prepared to answer.

"I'd rather have a plan in place and nothing come about than having no plan and then we end up panicking," he said.

A decade ago, remote and isolated communities were exposed to H1N1 from people who travelled to urban centres and then returned, Valerie Gideon, federal assistant deputy minister of Indigenous Services told the standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Blocking border

Peigan said if the risk of COVID-19 spreading onto reserve escalates he plans to block access onto Pasqua First Nation and have security patrol entrances onto the reserve to enforce a border.

Each day, he is monitoring where the new cases in Saskatchewan are being reported, how people contracted COVID-19, and deciding whether he will block access onto Pasqua First Nation.

Peigan wanted to premeditate his membership's concerns. He ordered the cleaning supplies because he knew that the high number of people on social assistance regularly have to decide between food and cleaning supplies.

Before placing the order, he said he asked if the Ministry of Social Services would provide extra finances, and says he was told that regular social assistance already accounts for cleaning items.

Two seacans outside the band hall and office have gotten a lot of attention. (Submitted by Cathie Johns-Wick)

"There is no action plan for those living in poverty in regards to ensuring they have those sanitary items," Peigan said, which he described as disheartening news.

The reserve and the province have since indefinitely closed all schools. The reserve has earmarked health-care professionals who may be able to administer COVID-19 tests, and the chief has picked a location away from anyone infected where emergency personnel can stay overnight if the pandemic hits Pasqua.

The biggest concern Peigan is hearing in the stream of phone calls and texts he gets from members during the day is about sanitary supplies and food.

His membership has been praising the efforts on Facebook, saying it's showing leadership during a tough time.

This inventory is a part of Peigan's months-long preparations for COVID-19. (Submitted by Cathie Johns-Wick)