Ottawa looking into Ontario's request for military help for First Nation amid COVID-19 surge, Hajdu says
'We're working with the community right now to determine what kind of skills they're looking for,' Hajdu says
The federal government has received Ontario's formal request for the military to be sent to Bearskin Lake First Nation to help with its rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreak, and is working with the community on what it may need, says Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu.
Hajdu said Friday the federal government had only just received the request, which she called a necessary component for military deployment.
"We're working with the community right now to determine what kind of skills they're looking for," she said.
The formal request was made Thursday, five days after Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin publicly asked Ottawa for military support. Pressure on the federal government has been growing throughout the week, as case counts have risen and staff have become overwhelmed, despite assistance from other nearby First Nations.
At least 200 people in Bearskin Lake — a community of roughly 400, some 600 kilometres north from Thunder Bay — have tested positive for the virus in the last 10 days. More than half of the community is in quarantine.
Kamenawatamin on Friday said there are about 30 people doing everything to keep the community running, including delivering food, hauling water and chopping wood.
"We're almost at a breaking point, where our people are exhausted, emotionally and physically," he said, adding they feel neglected and that they're not being heard.
WATCH | Bearskin Lake First Nation chief says help is needed:
The letter from Ontario Soliticor General Sylvia Jones to federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino asks for the support to begin immediately and continue 14 days from the date of deployment, with an option to extend by up to two weeks, or until the outbreak is manageable with local resources.
"Bearskin Lake First Nation has fewer than 20 staff members trying to assist hundreds of community members who are unable to leave their homes to obtain necessities, including firewood for heating, food, and medicine," Jones wrote in the letter.
The letter also makes note of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in First Nations across Ontario, including outbreaks in Ginoogaming, Aroland and Attawapiskat.
WATCH | Ontario MPP discusses his visit to Bearskin Lake First Nation:
"The [provincial emergency operations centre] is also aware of additional First Nation communities in Ontario that are experiencing similar COVID-19 related emergencies who may also be in future need of federal assistance for similar tasks," said the letter.
Hajdu said the surge in Bearskin Lake is unlike any other Indigenous Services Canada has seen during the pandemic.
"Indigenous Services Canada has been working with the community over the holidays, and certainly every single day has been co-ordinating meetings with the community," she said, adding the government has provided financial and logistical support, including chartered flights to bring in people and equipment.
On Friday morning, fellow federal cabinet ministers were asked during a media briefing about further supports for the community.
WATCH | Health minister addresses situation in Bearskin Lake:
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos deferred when it came to the question of military involvement, but said his department is working with Indigenous Services Canada.
Duclos told media he'd prefer to direct them to Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Hajdu for any more information.
Frank McKay, chief executive officer of the Windigo Tribal Council, which represents seven First Nations in northern Ontario including Bearskin Lake, said there is no end in sight to the crisis and the community continues to be overwhelmed.
"Yet, the government continues to drag their feet and provide limited resources," McKay said. "We deserve the same rights and recognition as all other Canadians when we ask for help."
With files from Matt Vis