Checkpoint confusion causing stress for some northern leaders, residents

Francis Iron of the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, said there's confusion around exemptions, and some officers at the checkpoint in his community, located on Highway 903, have been unprofessional and rude.

Concerns raised around clarity on exemptions, =respectful interactions

Chief of the Canoe Lake Cree Nation, Francis Iron, says he felt he was disrespected by officers patrolling a checkpoint in his community. (Supplied/Francis Iron)

Some leaders say confusion around provincial checkpoints scattered throughout northern Saskatchewan are creating stress and anxiety for communities already under pressure due to the pandemic.

At the end of April, the provincial government put in place heavy restrictions on travel in the region, which includes instructions for people to stay in their home communities, unless they're leaving for an essential trip, like a medical appointment or to get groceries.

However, some northern leaders, like Francis Iron of the Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, said some officers at the checkpoint in his community, located on Highway 903, have been unprofessional and rude.

"It's just all about being treated fairly and being talked to in a manner like we're human beings," he said. "All we're asking for is respect and we'll give that respect right back." 

CBC Saskatchewan requested an interview with Marlo Pritchard, president of Saskatchewan's Public Safety Agency to respond to the concerns outlined by northern leaders, but a statement was provided instead. 

"The primary intent of the check points is to provide information about public health order restrictions and to enforce the order as it is written," the statement explained.

"Only travel eligible under the order will be allowed. We have been communicating early and often with northern community leaders and are working with them to keep everyone informed. Peace officers and law enforcement are available to respond to enforcement issues."

Iron himself said he felt he was talked down to by officers at the checkpoint when he was trying to leave the community to get social assistance cheques signed so residents have the money they need during the pandemic. 

Despite telling the officers he's the chief of the community and the reason he was leaving was essential, he was turned around.

"There was just no reasoning with them," he said.

Iron said there are some officers who residents know and get along with well. He said had he been consulted on the roadblock, some of these issues could have been avoided.

On Saturday, Iron sent a letter to Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab detailing his concerns, noting while he's in favour of the restrictions, they must be amended to make sure those in the north still have access to the "basic necessities of life."

Of the province's 209 active cases, more than 90 per cent of them are located in northern Saskatchewan, where there are 193 active cases. 

Turnor Lake can be seen in Northern Saskatchewan. Kelly Kwan is the president of the Local Metis 40 in Turnor lake and he says he's heard concerns from residents about confusion at checkpoints. He says he's ready to work with all levels of government to get some clarity on the confusion. (Google Maps/Screen Shot)

Kelly Kwan, president of the Local Métis 40 out of Turnor Lake, said he too has heard stories about confusion and frustration at the checkpoints.

"There's a way we've always done stuff as Indigenous people. We've always respected everything around us, the land and nature, so when we feel disrespected — especially in our own land — it just doesn't sit right." 

He said while he understands and respects the officers are just trying to do their job, he says there needs to be clarity on the restrictions and what is considered essential.

Kwan said he's received a complaint from a pair of women who were leaving Turnor Lake for a medical appointment and were threatened with fines because they stopped to get groceries on the way back.

Kelly Kwan, an educator and president of the Local Metis 40 in Turnor Lake, says he feels issues at the checkpoints could be addressed through open dialogue and collaboration between provincial and federal governments and Indigenous leaders. (Submitted by Kelly Kwan)

"We are a province," he said. "I believe that every citizen should be treated equally and when I heard that, I thought: 'My God. What more can we be challenged with? We're already challenged with this deadly virus, and yet, it's like kicking us when we're down." 

He says there needs to be more communication between the province and community leaders, because a unified front to the pandemic is important.

"We're ready," he said. "We're ready to sit down with anybody, at any table at any government level, provincial, federal, whatever it may be, to start ironing out these inconsistencies and miscommunications and start developing that positive, neutral respect."

Duane Favel, mayor of the Northern Village of Ile-a-la Crosse, said he too has heard about people  having trouble at the checkpoints from his residents.

Duane Favel board chair for the community of Ile-a-la-Crosse is part of a curriculum review which will deal with treaty education. (CBC)

"A lot of our northern residents are complying with that and doing everything they can to follow the current restrictions that are in place but there are some ambiguities around the exceptions," he said. 

"It's not clear to a lot of people and it's not clear to, I think, people on both sides — the people who are manning the check stops and the northern residents, so that causes a lot of challenges."

He touched on one instance in the community where a family was travelling south to make funeral arrangements for a dead loved one, but were delayed at the checkpoint.

He said in this instance, the family was using two cars for travel, with elderly residents who rarely leave the community at the front, and their children, who were set to help them with the arrangements behind.

"They don't normally leave the community to go to the city on a regular basis. They'll be lucky if they get to the city once or twice a year, so they often need the assistance of immediate family members." 

However, while the parents were let through, the children were initially told they would not be permitted to leave. It was only after Favel intervened the situation was resolved and the family was allowed to travel. 

"Eventually they were allowed to get through, but that's the kind of misunderstanding that we have," Favel said, adding he thinks these types of issues are a result of a "lack of clarity" of what exactly is exempt.

"We need to find a way, as northern leaders and government, to be able to express those and clear, clear definitions in terms of what's allowed and what's not. I think that would have a positive impact both ways."

Northern leaders say they'd like to see officers working at checkpoints across the province receive cultural sensitivity training to ensure they're informed on how to properly work with northern residents in high-stress situations in a more respectful manner.