Thunder Bay

How Bearskin Lake's chief led his community through COVID-19 crisis

More than 220 people in Bearskin Lake First Nation, a remote community in Ontario's Far North, have been infected with COVID-19 in the last three weeks. With active case counts dropping, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin reflects on the crisis.

More than 220 of the roughly 400 people in the remote community got sick at once, and help was needed

Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin says its time for his community to heal from its COVID-19 outbreak

1 year ago
Duration 5:45
Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin speaks with the CBC's Logan Turner about his community's COVID-19 outbreak, and says its time for the community to begin the healing process.

Bearskin Lake First Nation Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin sits in front of his computer for one last interview about the outbreak that, for nearly three weeks, has overwhelmed his community in Ontario's Far North.

There's a bit of glare on the camera, right on his face, so he gets up with some newspaper, and moves off-screen to adjust the light.

"Let me make a little studio," he laughed.

Kamenawatamin knows what reporters need for the shot. He's been taking their calls nearly every day for the past few weeks as he recovers from COVID-19 in his home. He's one of more than 220 people who've tested positive since the outbreak began in the fly-in community of roughly 400 people, located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

That problem fixed, Kamenawatamin sits back down. A landline rings into the answering machine. A cell phone buzzes nearby.

He leans into the camera, and thinks back to the first few days of the outbreak: those who answered their call for help, and who kept them waiting.

The call for help

Right from the beginning, on Dec. 27, key staff tested positive for the virus — members of band council, the pandemic team and other front-line workers including people who deliver fuel and wood to keep buildings heated, provide security, and run COVID-19 tests.

"And the numbers kept adding and adding and adding positive cases," the chief said. 

Babies, elders and frontline workers were all testing positive, leaving just a handful of workers to care for and provide essential items for the hundreds who were forced to isolate in their homes.

The remote community went into a complete lockdown, then a state of emergency was declared on Dec. 29. 

Kamenawatamin heard that a few houses with young children were without power, and didn't have enough firewood to last the night with temperatures plunging below –30 C. He went on the community radio station, a vital source of communication for many communities in the Far North, and asked any front-line staff that had tested negative to rush over and help out.

More than 200 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Bearskin Lake First Nation, a community of about 400 people more than 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

The call for help was heard by some in Muskrat Dam, a neighbouring community about 100 kilometres away from Bearskin Lake. A few people drove over on the winter road that very night and started chopping wood, the chief said.

"That's the kind of help that I wanted when I declared an emergency." 

Surrounding communities step up to help

The First Nation has been overwhelmed with support from surrounding communities, said Kamenawatamin.

Chartered flights arrived from First Nations and cities in northern Ontario on an hourly basis, filled with food, care packages and other essential items like diapers, sanitation products and traditional medicines. Communities a bit closer sent supplies and volunteers via winter road and even snowmobile.

"They came in and," Kamenawatamin trailed off, visibly holding back tears before continuing after a long pause, "the compassion, you know, at their own expense, at their own safety … I was overwhelmed." 

More than two dozen ski-doos are loaded with food, chopped wood and other supplies outside a school in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, as they prepared to bring critical items to Bearskin Lake First Nation. (Submitted by Lyndon Nanokeesic)

Asked if Bearskin Lake could have made it without that help from other First Nations, Kamenawatamin said, "probably not."

It's a sentiment that's shared by many in the community.

Disappointment with government, military response

Terrilyn Wemigwans, whose three-year-old daughter Callie tested positive for COVID-19, said it was the surrounding communities that gave them hope.

As for the government and the military, Wemigwans said it seemed like "they don't want to come here."

On Jan. 3, with case numbers continuing to grow and a test positivity rate above 50 per cent, Kamenawatamin called for military assistance

WATCH | Community members react to government response:

Members of Bearskin Lake First Nation say they're frustrated with government's response to request for assistance

1 year ago
Duration 6:22
Charles Fox, former Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief and a Bearskin Lake First Nation member, joins Power & Politics to talk about the COVID 19 outbreak in that community and the government's response to calls for help.

The chief expressed his frustration with what he considered a slow and inadequate response.

"I didn't want help next month or next week. It was an emergency declaration," he said, adding he didn't understand why there was so much bureaucracy and so many assessments that had to be completed to get what he said he needed.

By declaring the state of emergency, the chief said he was broadcasting that Bearskin Lake needed somebody to come in and set up a command centre to oversee the response until the situation got to a point where the First Nation was able to help themselves.

Instead, it was three days before the First Nation was informed about funding from Indigenous Services Canada, who approved $1.1 million throughout the first week of January. It took nearly two weeks after the emergency declaration for the Canadian Forces to send three Canadian Rangers from the headquarters in Borden, Ont., to support the community.

Boxes of food were compiled to be distributed to households in Bearskin Lake First Nation. (Submitted by Rodge McKay)

The federal government said seven rangers were activated to help, but four of those military reservists were local and already affected by the outbreak. Two of them were exhausted, having spent weeks volunteering on the front-lines, and two hadn't come forward as of Wednesday, according to Kamenawatamin, who said they may still be in isolation or supporting their own families.

An additional "leadership team" of three Canadian Armed Forces members was sent to Bearskin Lake on Thursday, according to a tweet from Minister of National Defence Anita Anand.

Government in daily contact with community, Hajdu says

The response was far from what Kamenawatamin said was expected and needed. Still, after three weeks, there remains a fundamental disconnect between how Bearskin Lake leadership and ministry officials understand the effort.

On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said, "there was no delay in responding to the community's increasing requests for support."

Hajdu said government officials were in daily, sometimes twice daily calls with Bearskin Lake leadership to make sure they had everything they needed. She expressed her own frustration with criticism of the ministry's handling of the outbreak.

"When I hear that communities are still struggling with that sense of being supported, that obviously makes me want to understand how we can better meet their needs and how we can better open up lines of communication," she said.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said Monday the federal government is committed to funding a pipeline that would bring treated drinking water to Oneida Nation of the Thames. But she would not commit to a dollar figure for a project that comes with an estimated cost of $57 million.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu says federal government officials were in daily contact with Bearskin Lake community leaders. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Hajdu added that her staff is now working to streamline processes for Indigenous communities to ask for help, at the request of Manitoba First Nations, but she referred the question about speeding up First Nation's requests for military assistance to the defence minister, who was unavailable for an interview with CBC News.

Bearskin Lake publicly asked for military support on the morning of Jan. 3, but Ontario's solicitor general did not submit the request for federal assistance until the evening of Jan. 6. A statement from the solicitor general did not say why it took four full days to send that letter to Ottawa.

Time to heal

There is some hope to be found these days, Kamenawatamin said. No lives have been lost due to COVID-19 since December, something he attributes in part to a high adult vaccination rate above 80 per cent. The number of active cases have dropped significantly since the height of the outbreak.

Now, the chief says it's time to start rebuilding and healing as a community.

"We just want to go back to some normalcy," he said.

But the community is exhausted, Kamenawatamin said, and front-line workers are burned out. Even as they try to recover, responders have to remain vigilant for other disasters — like a chimney fire Wednesday that threatened to consume the house of a young family, the second in as many weeks.

As the leader of a remote First Nation with limited infrastructure and resources, Kamenawatamin has a clear message for others in Ontario's Far North: Be prepared and be ready.