COVID-19 could be 'devastating' for First Nations, says Matawa First Nations CEO

The CEO of a tribal council that represents five fly-in communities in northern Ontario says the COVID-19 virus poses a potentially “devastating” threat to First Nations that are already dealing with a bad flu year and face overcrowded conditions due to housing shortages. 

Overcrowded housing could make self-isolation impossible, says Neskatanga chief

David Paul Achneepineskum, CEO of Matawa First Nations Management, says staff who attended a Toronto mining conference linked to a case of the COVID-19 illness have been asked to work from home. (Gord Ellis / CBC)

The CEO of an organization that represents several fly-in communities in northern Ontario says the COVID-19 virus poses a potentially "devastating" threat to First Nations that are already dealing with a bad flu year and face overcrowded conditions due to housing shortages. 

David Paul Achneepineskum, CEO of Matawa First Nations, said his organization has already implemented precautionary measures because about 60 people from its nine member communities along with some of its staff attended a mining conference earlier this month in Toronto that has been linked to a COVID-19 case in Sudbury, Ont. 

Paul Achneepineskum said he and the 12 staff members who attended the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference would now be working from home over the next two weeks as a precaution.

"It's kind of scary," he said.

Paul Achneepineskum said it has already been a bad year for the flu in several First Nations and the threat of a new virus puts already vulnerable people in potential peril.

"I am afraid it's going to be very devastating. As it is right now, our communities are in a crisis situation," he said. 

"I am very concerned about our elders and those that have low immunity and people with diabetes."

The member First Nations of Matawa include Webequie, Nibinamik, Neskantaga, Marten Falls, Long Lake 58, Ginoogaming, Eabametoong, Constance Lake and Aroland.   

Matawa First Nations has contacted the Thunder Bay Health Unit to apprise them of the situation, said Paul Achneepineskum. He said the health unit provided information that has been distributed to all the organization's member First Nations.

Paul Achneepineskum said that the tribal council operated a booth at the conference. He said his staff interacted with mining representatives and provincial government officials who are based out of Sudbury.

Self-isolation difficult with overcrowded housing

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, whose fly-in First Nation is about 400 km north of Thunder Bay, attended the conference and said he is self-monitoring for symptoms.

Moonias, whose community is a member of Matawa, said a total of six people attended the conference from Neskantaga and one recently went to the Thunder Bay hospital to get tested, but was told it wasn't necessary because they showed no symptoms.

Neskantaga's nursing staff gave a presentation on COVID-19 during a community meeting on Tuesday on preventative measures to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, he said. 

Moonias said preventative measures may not be enough in many remote First Nations which face a shortage of housing.

"How can we be prepared if we are asked to be put under self-isolation when there is overcrowded housing, two or three families living in one house," he said.

"How are you going to isolate yourself?"

Moonias said he's asked health staff in his community to begin stocking up on things like dried goods, disinfectants, hand sanitizers and other products in case supply chains are affected by the virus outbreak. 

"With the lack of infrastructure ... where are we going to put them? We lack the space and we lack infrastructure," said Moonias. 

Churchill—Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton says Ottawa needs to do more to help First Nations prepare for COVID-19. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski includes several northern Manitoba First Nations, said she is concerned the federal government is not doing enough to help First Nations prepare.

"I am talking to leaders on the ground and nobody is talking to them, or if they are talking to them, there is nothing substantive," said Ashton.

Ashton said she is seeing the same concerns resurface from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 that led to Manitoba First Nations declaring a state of emergency.

Ashton said there were calls then for a field hospital to service remote northern First Nations in the province who were sent by air to Winnipeg for treatment. Now, with this new threat from COVID-19, the need for a field hospital is again emerging, she said.

"People are very concerned particularly around the issue of self-isolation," she said. "If you do get sick, where would you go?"

Ashton said the government's failure to deal with issues around housing, infrastructure and water quality have allowed conditions that increase the threat of a virus to persist. 

"We need to be communicating with communities on the ground, identifying what are the major gaps here," said Ashton.

Indigenous Services says it's working with communities

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said his department's health branch is aware of the problems overcrowding poses to the need for self-isolation and officials have learned from the H1N1 pandemic.

"Indigenous communities across Canada face specifities that non-Indigenous people don't when it comes to exposure to [COVID-19]. We have our experience from H1N1 and we know that overcrowding poses a real threat to people's health for a number of reasons," Miller told reporters in Ottawa.

"In an overcrowded situation, it will be much more difficult to self-isolate so we need a strategy to approach that ... We have a specific approach to reach out to communities, communication directly into the community ... with chiefs, with health stations, with nursing stations but also directly with the public."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says his department's health branch is engaged with the COVID-19 preparations at the community level. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Trudeau said the government was putting $1 billion to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the total, about $100 million is set aside to pay for enhanced federal surveillance, increased testing at the National Microbiology Laboratory, and ongoing support for preparedness in First Nations and Inuit communities.

Miller said there is already money in place from last year's budget — in addition to the funds announced by the prime minister— to deal with any outbreak that occurs in First Nations.

Miller's office said in emailed statement that the department has been working to help prepare nursing stations to ensure they have adequate stocks of personal protective equipment, medication and nursing surge capacity.

The statement said that the department is dealing with emergency preparedness officials, health directors, health workers and nurses, along with provincial medical officials, to ensure First Nations are integrated into provincial plans.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

with a file from The Canadian Press