Sudbury

Ontario First Nations communities brace for COVID-19 cases, as they work to keep the virus out

As communities around the world work to slow the spread of COVID-19, First Nations leaders in Ontario are doing everything they can to protect their people. There are particular concerns for remote communities, many of which lack access to basic services. 

Ontario Regional Chief hopes strong measures will protect as many communities as possible

Attawapiskat and Kashechewan are not allowing outsiders to come into the community on the ice road or through the airport in order to keep COVID-19 out. (Facebook )

As community leaders around the world work to slow the spread of COVID-19, First Nations leaders in Ontario are doing everything they can to protect their people. There are particular concerns for remote communities, many of which lack access to basic services. 

There have been confirmed cases First Nations ranging from the remote Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, to Six Nations in the south. One person in Six Nations has died of the illness.  

Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald represents the province's 133 First Nations. She worries as she sees cases beginning to crop up.

"In terms of being ready for the first wave of infections, we are definitely in the same space as everybody else in Ontario," Archibald says.

"I don't think anybody's fully prepared for what is to come."

High risk demographic

Archibald knows First Nations are not alone in feeling unprepared for the global pandemic, but she says First Nations communities are at "extremely high risk for tragic outcomes."

"A lot of people have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, and other immunocompromised diseases," Archibald said.

"If we think of people in the rest of Canada as being high risk when they have those kinds of underlying conditions, First Nations as a collective are high risk, and I would say that our vulnerable are highest risk."

Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald says First Nations are at particularly high risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied/Laura Barrios)

Archibald said the risks are heightened in situations where there is overcrowding, limited access to healthcare, and in some cases boil water advisories in place. 

Archibald says the best hope for protecting communities is to stop movement in and out. 

"About half of our communities have declared a state of emergency, and a number of those communities are in lock down mode, which mean they're restricting access to their communities. They're setting up checkpoints, they're restricting travel in and out," Archibald said. 

'Our healthcare system would be overwhelmed'

In northeastern Ontario, Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon feels lucky that there have been no confirmed cases in the seven First Nations he represents.

"That's the reason why our leadership is trying to plug every hole in regards to accessibility into the community," Solomon said. 

Flights have been cancelled, except for the transportation of essential supplies, and medical flights. And anyone returning to their community is asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

Solomon says any cases of COVID-19 would be "devastating."

"Our healthcare system would be overwhelmed. It's already strained to its maximum limit in regards to services for many many years."

Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon of the Mushkegowuk Council says any cases of COVID-19 in the communities he represents would be devastating. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the efforts to keep COVID-19 out, Solomon says local leaders have had to make tough decisions. This is the time of year when Kashechewan First Nation is typically evacuated, because of spring flooding. But this year, the annual evacuation has been cancelled. 

"Our leadership said we're not going anywhere this year," Solomon said.

He said the risk is to great to send people to urban centres, where there are confirmed cases of COVID-19. Instead, he said, many will be going out on the land, to traditional hunting areas.

More resources needed

Solomon and Archibald both say they appreciate efforts from the federal and provincial governments to assist, but they say more support is needed — and more quickly. 

"Those systems that these political leaders are in charge of have a lot of constraint, and they're, they can be slow," Archibald said. 

"That's not acceptable in a time like this when the speed of action determines how many lives we can save, and the speed of action certainly determines how much we can preserve health in our communities."

About the Author

Sarah MacMillan is a reporter with CBC Sudbury. She previously worked with CBC P.E.I. You can contact her at sarah.macmillan@cbc.ca