Kashechewan hopes to move 2,000 people into tents to avoid flooding and COVID-19

COVID-19 is forcing the James Bay community of Kashechewan to make some tough decisions ahead of spring flooding. Instead of the annual evacuation, the remote Ontario First Nation is looking to put all 2,000 members in tents out in the wilderness.

Chief says he's had no response from the federal government

Kashechewan First Nation has become one of the first in northern Ontario to banish drug dealers from its communities. (Erik White/CBC )

It's an emergency that is scheduled.

Every spring, the 2,000 people of Kashechewan are flown out of the remote First Nation on Ontario's James Bay Coast to avoid potential flooding from the Albany River.

But this year, they are stuck between an emergency and a crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has Kashechewan nervous about flying people to stay in hotel rooms in cities like Timmins where the virus is spreading.

"Some people are getting really scared," says Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday. 

"A lot of them saying they're not going to go any place anyway. Because one way or another, they're going to get that virus." 

Many of the 2,000 people in Kashechewan live in cramped and crowded conditions, which wouldn't allow them to be isolated from each other if there is an outbreak of COVID-19. (Erik White/CBC )

The annual evacuation of the community is usually set for late April and takes months of preparations. But now, the First Nation is trying to make a new plan from scratch, with the break-up of ice on the river and the rising floodwaters just weeks away.

Friday would like to see if there's a way to take his entire community "out on the land"— set up tent frames and makeshift cabins in the wilderness around Kashechewan and wait for the flooding and the virus to subside.

This is something Cree people have traditionally done on the James Bay at this time of year to hunt geese, but Friday says only a handful do these days, because most families live on welfare and can't afford it. 

He's asking the federal government to provide funding so the First Nation can buy people the equipment and supplies they'll need to live in the bush for a month.

But Friday knows it isn't that simple to just move a community of 2,000 into the forest.

He says they might need to keep people with disabilities or medical conditions in Kashechewan and then airlift them out by helicopter if the floodwaters come over the dike that protects the First Nation.

The dike that encircles Kashechewan is not expected to protect the community from a major flood like they have seen in years past. (Erik White/CBC )

Friday says there's also been a suggestion that the Canadian army might help them construct a "tent city" nearby, possibly on a spot 30 km up the river known as "Site 5" where the federal government has promised to build Kashechewan a new community.

The chief says he wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau two weeks ago and several times since, but hasn't received a response from the federal government. 

"At least they could come back to me and say we're looking at your letter and think about how we might move forward," says Friday.

"But nobody seems to want to talk about it."

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 )

Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement that it is in regular contact with officials in Kashechewan and is giving the situation there "urgent consideration."

On top of the flooding worries, the communities of the James Bay Coast are also concerned about the virus spreading to their remote region of the province.

Kashechewan and Attawapiskat have both stationed so-called "peacekeepers" at the entrance to the winter road and at the airport to turn away outsiders, even those from neighbouring First Nations, leading to some heated arguments.

Friday says with a lack of medical facilities and severe overcrowding in a limited number of houses, isolating the sick would be very difficult. 

"What happens if it's going to be here? We don't have the right equipment in the community, we don't have the doctors," he says.

"It's really hard to do those kinds of things because of the number of people in the house. If one gets it, then everybody in the house will get it in no time."

Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon (left) and Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday are asking the federal government to help them find a way for people to stay in the bush during the annual spring flooding. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

The federal government is planning to send hospital tents to the coastal communities to help with quarantining Coronavirus patients.

Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon says that is the best option at this time, but he wishes it wasn't.

"All these years, the First Nations have said we have challenges with housing, we have challenges with infrastructure, and if there had been some action to address those things I don't think we'd be talking about tents today."


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