Sudbury·Audio

Some northern Ontario First Nations going back into lockdown, while others have kept borders closed

Some First Nations in northern Ontario are now closing their borders again to keep COVID-19 out of their communities. While others have been controlling who goes in and out of their territory since the start of the pandemic. 

Some First Nations took down their checkpoints because of the high costs and risks to community mental health

The rise of COVID-19 cases in northeastern Ontario has inspired some First Nations to put their checkpoints back up, while others have controlled access in and out of their communities since March. (Erik White/CBC )

Going to Sudbury is considered a trip to a dangerous COVID-19 hotspot if you live in Sagamok.

Chief Alan Ozawanimke says someone coming back from that trip would be stopped at the checkpoint on the only road into the First Nation and ordered to self-isolate for 14 days. 

"It's not going to keep anything out. It's not going to keep the threat out," he says. "But what it does is it reminds us of our responsibilities."

The Lake Huron community has kept its checkpoint up since March. For several weeks in the spring, each household was restricted to one grocery trip per week or one mail box check per week. And Sagamok residents needed a pass to leave the community. 

"People didn't appreciate that. It was quite oppressive actually," says Osawanimke. 

"But it served a certain purpose in terms of educating us of the severity of the situation out there and what we needed to do to be responsible to our families and our elders."

The school and stores in the First Nation remain open, but visitors are restricted, including family members wanting to attend recent funerals.

Sagamok has controlled access in and out of the community since the start of the pandemic. Currently, a trip to the nearby city of Sudbury could require you to isolate for 14 days. (Erik White/CBC )

Taykwa Tagamou First Nation has also had its checkpoint up since the start of the pandemic, but just recently closed the door to visits from band members who don't live on the reserve, after loosening the rules over the summer and fall.

Councillor Howard Archibald says it's been tough on the 130 people who live in the community, who before this latest lockdown would drive into Cochrane just to get a coffee. 

"Just to get out. Just to get away. Because there's no other place to go," he says. 

"It's tough. We can't keep people locked in. The intention wasn't to keep people locked in or locked out, it was to keep the community safe. Because we don't know where everyone's been."

The recent rise in northern COVID-19 cases has prompted other First Nations to put their barricades back up.

Garden River returned its checkpoints to Highway 17B east of Sault Ste. Marie in early January after a case was reported in the First Nation, following a New Year's Eve Party.

The First Nation also recently passed a pandemic bylaw, laying out the emergency powers of chief and council, including the ability to appoint officers who can issue $1,000 fines and charges that could lead to 30 days in jail. 

Garden River Chief Andy Rickard didn't respond to CBC's requests for comment, but is posting daily updates on Facebook. 

"Thank you for allowing us to do what needs to be done here in the community to protect our citizens," Rickard says.

Constance Lake is once again controlling movement in and out of the community near Hearst, which is complicated by workers commuting into a sawmill on the reserve. 

"You got people who are scared, you got people who are wary of it, you got people that this is the 'new now' and you got people who are paranoid," says Chief Rick Allen. 

Some First Nations took their checkpoints down because of the high costs of guarding their borders, and out of fear for the toll the restrictions were taking on the community's mental health. (Erik White/CBC )

He says he feels for cities and towns in the north that are also wondering if COVID-19 is going to hit their communities, but don't have the authority to close off roads like a chief and council. 

"Probably wish they had more power than they have, because they have to wait for the premier to make these decisions," says Allen.

Constance Lake took down its checkpoint in the summer, partly to help the strained mental health of the citizens, but also because keeping up a 24-hour border crossing is very expensive for a small First Nation.

Those are some of the same reasons Serpent River dismantled its nine roadblocks in the spring and hasn't put them back up.

"I think, much like everybody else, we're pretty tired," Chief Brent Bisaillon says. 

"I think they understand COVID, but there's a lot of misinformation and fear out there and with inconsistent provincial messaging there's a lot of 'Is this true? Is this true?'"

He'd like to see Premier Doug Ford do more to stop the second wave. 

"Him telling everyone to stay home isn't working. And I know there's a lockdown, but up here it doesn't actually change anything," says Bisaillon. 

He'd like to see the provincial government follow the First Nations lead and control who comes into northern Ontario with checkpoints on Highways 69, 11 and 17. 

Ontario is under a stay-at-home order, but it doesn't apply to the dozens of First Nation communities in northern Ontario and elsewhere. They set their own rules. Many have had their borders closed to outsiders since March and some are putting the barriers back up as COVID cases go up. CBC reporter Erik White joined us with more about that. 9:37

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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