Kashechewan spared from spring flooding, but now has to keep COVID-19 away

The risk of flooding is over for Kashechewan First Nation, but now the James Bay community is focused on bringing back the 900 people who have been camping out in the wilderness during the spring melt, while trying to keep COVID-19 away.

About half of the community of 2,000 moved out to tents in the bush to avoid possible flooding

The break-up on the Albany River happened slowly enough this spring thanks to cold weather to keep floodwaters out of Kashechewan. (James Goodwin)

About 1,100 people in Kashechewan have spent the past few weeks, wondering and worrying if floodwaters would come into their homes.

For the past decade, the entire First Nation is evacuated to hotel rooms in Timmins and elsewhere to avoid possible spring flooding, but that was ruled out as too risky this year with COVID-19 spreading in cities to the south.

About 900 people were moved out into tents in the wilderness to wait out the spring break-up, but the rest stayed put.

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday, who is also the community's Anglican priest, told everyone to pray for a good break-up.

"They were just hoping for the best and a smooth break-up and that's what they've been thinking maybe. And some of them were worried, but it came out okay after all," he says.

Cold weather slowed down the break-up of ice on the Albany River, which is still frozen at Kashechewan, and the spring melt is expected to flow gradually out to James Bay and not into the low lying community. 

A dike made of gravel and bricks curves around with water on one side and the tops of hydro poles on the other
So far this spring the waters of the Albany River only made it part way up the dike that encircles Kashechewan, but does little to protect the community from major flooding. (Erik White/CBC)

Friday says in this spring's "double whammy" he was always more worried about COVID-19.

"I was worried that my people would be flown out. That was the only thing I was worried about. I wasn't really worried about the flood, because we always managed in the old days," he says.

And like the old days, dozens spent the past few weeks out on the land, hunting geese, a Cree tradition that few in Kashechewan have taken part in recently because of the annual evacuations.

"Lot of people did what they need to do in their traditional territory. I hear they did a lot of training with their young people. And those are things that we've missed out the last many years when we're evacuated from the community," Friday says. 

"This is a chance to go back to it and a lot of people are happy to see this is happening and hopefully we can have more of this next year."

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday says his next challenge is to convince people not to leave the isolated community and possibly bring COVID-19 back with them. (Erik White/CBC )

Friday is critical of the federal government for their slow response to his community's predicament this spring, but is thankful that they've come through with $4.8 million for camping supplies and the costly airlifts in and out of remote sites.

The campers will start flying back to Kashechewan on Wednesday, but Friday is already worrying about convincing his people to stay home after that.

He is warning them not to travel outside of the community, which could possibly bring COVID-19 to the remote region that has yet to have a confirmed case. 

"I think they will put a lot of pressure on us," Friday says.

"It's up to the people. We have to somehow control the virus from coming into the community and the only way we can do it is to stay home."


Erik White


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