Thunder Bay

Calls grow for Ottawa to 'step up' with military help for First Nation plagued by COVID-19 in Ontario

Pressure is growing for the federal government to act on Bearskin Lake First Nation's request for military assistance to deal with COVID-19, which has infected nearly half the on-reserve population in the community in northwestern Ontario.

Hajdu tweets officials working to bring 40 personnel in to 'help with freight, delivery and security'

A medical van brings people in Bearskin Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario to get tested for COVID-19. The First Nation is urging Ottawa to send military assistance to help it deal with the crisis. (Submitted by Sharon Angeconeb)

It's been three days since Bearskin Lake First Nation publicly asked the federal government for assistance from the Canadian military.

And still no response.

Nearly half of the roughly 400 people living in the remote First Nation 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., have tested positive for COVID-19. Even more are in quarantine.

It's left the community with a dwindling number of people to perform essential tasks like delivering wood, food and medicine to those in isolation.

"We need external personnel to come in and help us. We need human resources," said Charles Fox, a member of Bearskin Lake and a former Ontario regional chief.

Charles Fox, a former Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief and former Ontario regional chief, is a member of Bearskin Lake First Nation. 'We need external personnel to come in and help us. We need human resources,' he says. (Charles Fox/Twitter)

The people who are able to work are "running on fumes," Fox said. "How much longer can they continue? I don't know."

In a tweet Thursday morning, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said officials are now working to bring 40 personnel into the community to "help with freight, delivery and security."

Details about who the personnel will be, from where and when they will come are still unknown, as discussions among many partners — including Ontario, the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority and the Windigo Tribal Council — are expected to continue today.

Despite the increasingly dire situation in Bearskin Lake, it is still unknown if members of the military will be deployed.

A spokesperson with the Department of National Defence said Wednesday it hasn't received a formal request for assistance, adding that request would have to be co-ordinated by Public Safety Canada.

On Thursday morning, Public Safety Canada said in a statement to CBC that it had not yet received an official request for assistance for Bearskin Lake. That formal request comes when an emergency event overwhelms or threatens to overwhelm the resources and capacity of a province to respond.

If Ontario does make an official request for federal assistance, the statement added, a well-established process is in place to manage the request.

A nurse works at the arena in Bearskin Lake, helping residents get tested for COVID-19. (Submitted by Sharon Angeconeb)

"They're just playing the game," Fox said, adding the federal government is well aware of the challenges facing the First Nation.

"If the city of Toronto gets snowed under, [the army] will go in the following day. But we're a First Nation. We're far removed — out of sight, out of mind."

Politicians demand Ottawa take action

But there is growing pressure on the federal government to respond to Bearskin Lake's request for assistance.

After speaking with leaders in Bearskin Lake, Charlie Angus said it should not be so difficult for a remote community in crisis to get help from the military.

The New Democrat MP for Timmins—James Bay, Charlie Angus, says it shouldn't be so difficult for a remote community in crisis to get help from the military. (Parliament of Canada)

"We can't get supplies into homes to heat them, to get food to elders, because so many people are in quarantine or sick," said the NDP member of Parliament for Timmins—James Bay.

Angus sent a letter on Wednesday to Canadian Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair that demands action.

"What does it take for the Canadian government to step up and say, 'Yeah, we'll be there to help?'"

Volunteers get on a flight Sunday to Bearskin Lake First Nation, where they helped perform essential tasks like medical transports and delivery of food and water. (Submitted by Sharon Angeconeb)

Angus said the military has the logistical support and the labour force needed in Bearskin Lake. But he claims the government systemically responds slower to remote First Nations in crisis.

"It's this pattern of shrugging, hoping for the best, waiting it out, and a fundamental culture of indifference," he said.

Eric Melillo, the Conservative MP whose Kenora riding includes Bearskin Lake, also tweeted his support for the First Nation's appeal for military assistance.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday in Ottawa, federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the Trudeau government has been slow throughout the pandemic to deploy the military when necessary, including to Bearskin Lake. O'Toole added he would ask his shadow ministers to advocate on behalf of the First Nation's leadership.

Meanwhile, donations from nearby remote First Nations continue to flood into Bearskin Lake, with planes landing filled with food, medicine, air purifiers and other essential items like diapers.

"They do appreciate all of the support they've been receiving from neighbouring communities," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox, who represents 49 First Nations across northern Ontario and is from Bearskin Lake.

"But the problem is there's no boots on the ground. So whatever comes into the First Nation, there's no one there to deliver those things. There's no one there to cut the wood."

In the last week, Indigenous Services Canada has approved $1.1 million to help Bearskin Lake with its response. Nearly half is for food security, personal protective equipment and isolation spaces.

The rest was approved to enhance community security, and support the transportation of volunteers and service providers coming into the community.

WATCH | Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox speaks about COVID-19 outbreak in Bearskin Lake:

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief speaks about Bearskin Lake outbreak

5 months ago
Duration 7:09
Derek Fox, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and a member of Bearskin Lake, is calling for the federal government to deploy members of the military to help battle a major COVID-19 outbreak in the remote First Nation.

But Fox said Bearskin Lake shouldn't be forced to rely on volunteers, and paid, trained members of the military are needed.

The need for their support may become more critical in the coming week, as Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin worries some community members may need to be hospitalized.

Lefty Kamenawatamin, chief of Bearskin Lake First Nation, says the need for support may become more critical in the coming week. He worries some community members may need to be hospitalized. (Submitted by Lefty Kamenawatamin)

He said the community is about 80 per cent vaccinated, but he is concerned about elders, infants and vulnerable people with chronic health conditions.

The community is at a breaking point, Kamenawatamin said, adding he doesn't know how bad things need to get before Bearskin Lake gets help.