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Life in lockdown: 2 families share stories from Bearskin Lake First Nation in Ontario

Two families share their stories of battling COVID-19 and living through lockdown as a major outbreak devastates Bearskin Lake, the First Nation in northwestern Ontario that's seen area communities and the Canadian military help out.

Playing hockey, drawing pictures, making thank you signs just some of coping strategies

Terrilyn Wemigwans, her partner Dominique Meekis and their three-year-old daughter Callie play indoor hockey to stay busy during the COVID-19 lockdown in Bearskin Lake First Nation in Ontario. (Submitted by Terrilyn Wemigwans)

A ball flies across the living room floor of the home, past the wood stove and under a couple of hockey sticks before coming to a stop at the base of the couch.

That's one goal for dad Dominique Meekis.

His partner, Terrilyn Wemigwans, passes the ball to three-year-old Callie, who takes a whack at it. When the youngster misses, teetering off balance and tumbling to the ground, the whole family bursts out laughing.

Indoor makeshift hockey games, dance parties and games with balloons are just some of the ways the Meekis-Wemigwans family has tried to stay busy during the devastating COVID-19 outbreak in Bearskin Lake that's in its third week in the First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

The Meekis-Wemigwans family has been in quarantine in Bearskin Lake for weeks. The COVID-19 outbreak led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the remote First Nation on Dec. 29. (Submitted by Terrilyn Wemigwans)

More than 220 people have tested positive for the virus since Dec. 28, with even more forced to isolate in the remote First Nation of roughly 400 people that's about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

On Wednesday, Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said in a statement the outbreak has led to a mental-health crisis.

"We try to keep our minds busy," Wemigwans told CBC News in a Skype interview. "But it takes a toll on us at nighttime, when you think of it the most.

"It's hard, especially when you see others that are not doing so well, and you just want them to get better."

The first few days of the outbreak were among the darkest for the young family. On Dec. 27, Callie came down with a fever and had achy bones. Shortly after, the three-year-old tested positive for COVID-19.

"I was so scared," Wemigwans said.

Both of Meekis's parents, Clarence and Alice, shown here, died from complications of COVID-19 in March 2021. (Submitted by Terrilyn Wemigwans)

The family has already been hit hard by the virus. Both of Meekis's parents — Clarence Meekis and Alice Mckoop-Meekis — died from complications of COVID-19 on the same day last March.

Every time there is a lockdown, Wemigwans said their "hearts hurt," as they relive the day they found out both parents tested positive for COVID-19.

After Callie was found to have the virus, the parents started wearing masks and washing their hands. They cleaned the house multiple times daily, and kept Callie's fever down by giving her Tylenol regularly and keeping her hydrated.

They also had to rely on help from a handful of front-line staff and volunteers to haul water to their home, with two long-term boil-water advisories affecting Bearskin Lake, and to deliver chopped wood.

WATCH | Terrilyn Wemigwans talks about life in lockdown:

Terrilyn Wemigwans talks about life in lockdown in Bearskin Lake First Nation, Ont.

16 days ago
Duration 0:40
Terrilyn Wemigwans explains the mental burnout of lockdown, and how her family is staying positive through the community's COVID-19 outbreak. 0:40

With beds that freeze to the walls in the winter, poor insulation and a few holes in the house, Wemigwans said they go through a truckload of wood every two weeks to keep it heated.

By Day 3 of quarantine, Callie's symptoms started to ease, and two rounds of testing confirmed neither parent was infected.

Wemigwans said her house was built in the 1980s. While it has had some renovations, she said, there were a number of holes in the floor and doors when they moved in, meaning cold air is allowed to enter. (Submitted by Terrilyn Wemigwans)

Tuesday marked a big moment for the Wemigwans-Meekis family, when a nurse called to say their mandatory quarantine had officially ended.

"We've beaten COVID in my house, and that means a lot, even if we're still stuck in lockdown," Wemigwans said.

'I wished it was me'

Seequan Brown, a single mom of five in Bearskin Lake, isn't quite there.

Brown said the family won't be considered resolved and out of quarantine until Saturday.

Early in the outbreak, Brown and her two eldest daughters went to get tested. When she heard the results, Brown remembers crying. They were both positive. She was negative.

"I felt mad, like, I wished it was me instead of them."

Seequan Brown, top left, a single mother of five, is shown with four of her children while in quarantine in Bearskin Lake. Her other child is living in the community with his grandparents, and Brown said she talks to him every day to check in on his COVID-19 symptoms. (Submitted by Seequan Brown)

Brown was forced to isolate the two sick children in one house, but the hours of additional cleaning and extra precautions taken couldn't stop the virus from spreading. A few days later, her two youngest also started showing symptoms, and then she tested positive a week later.

"Some days I would think I don't know how much longer I can do this … I was just so tired," Brown said.

Area communities pitch in

Brown said the support of surrounding First Nations helped them get through the outbreak, with people sending in food, sanitation supplies and chopped wood. When deliveries would come to the house, Brown said, her kids would draw pictures and wave thank you signs in the window.

"It meant so much. There were times when I would cry [of joy] from all the things they've done to help. And the government never came, or never did anything. It was just our people helping us."

Brown's children hold a thank you sign in the window of their home as they watch volunteers chop wood to heat their home in Bearskin Lake. (Submitted by Seequan Brown)

Wemigwans also said she hadn't see any help from members of the military since Canadian Rangers arrived in the community for relief efforts

In a media statement on Wednesday, Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin called the military's support "minimal," and said only five Rangers were on the ground.

Two Rangers are from the First Nation and were already working on the community's front line for weeks. Three Rangers from outside the community are expected to be on the ground until Jan. 23.

Lefty Kamenawatamin, the chief of Bearskin Lake First Nation, says the military's support has been 'minimal.' (Submitted by Lefty Kamenawatamin)

Indigenous Services Canada said it has also provided $1.1 million to help bring volunteers and staff into the community, as well as for other essential items like food and medicine.

As COVID-19 cases hopefully begin to resolve over the next few days, Kamenawatamin said the focus will be on "the mental-health crisis this situation has created and work towards the positive healing of my community."

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