#ItsNotAboutYou: First Nations coming together for their elders amid COVID-19 pandemic

Elders at a nursing home in Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario have messages for their families and First Nations communities about the importance of social distancing, self-isolating, and handwashing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘As Indigenous people, we always hold our elders to the highest level.'

Residents at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home took to social media this week to share the importance of social distancing and self-isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Wikwemikong Nursing Home)

Elders at a nursing home in Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario are taking to social media to tell families and First Nations the importance of social distancing, self-isolating, and handwashing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The elders are sharing their concerns to get the message across that measures taken across the country are about protecting residents like themselves.

The campaign started at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home, on the Manitoulin Island north of Lake Huron, because administrator Cheryl Osawabine-Peltier felt people, not just locally but worldwide, were not taking precautions seriously enough.

"They're putting our residents, our vulnerable population, at risk," said Osawabine-Peltier. "I don't think people are getting the message that they might not be at risk but can give it to aunts, uncles, or grandparents."

Osawabine-Peltier said 80 percent of their current residents are First Nations, primarily from Manitoulin Island. The nursing home's values revolve around Anishinaabe people's Seven Grandfather Teachings.

"When I see all of our residents here, I think of them as my grandparent. My most favourite person was my grandma, and she helped raise me so that's the way I look at all of our older population," she said. "As Indigenous people, we always hold our elders to the highest level."

Physical distance, but still need socializing 

Long-term care facilities and seniors homes across the country have been ordered to prohibit visitors since last week. But many First Nations such as in Wikwemikong had already started taking precautionary steps to restrict visitors.

Osawabine-Peltier said the campaign includes messages like "I know you love me" and "we can Skype" to let families know there are alternative ways to communicate with loved ones during the pandemic.

Residents of the Wikwemikong Nursing Home also made their families know there are other ways to communicate amid COVID-19 orders to prohibit visitors at long term care facilities across the country. (Wikwemikong Nursing Home)

It's a similar message Peggy Mayo wants people to remember. Although physical distance is necessary, elders still need socializing. Mayo is the president of Golden Age Club in Kahnawake, Que. 

Like Wikwemikong, Kahnawake also restricted access to its long-term care facilities well before the province ordered visitor bans. The community also launched a COVID-19 task force that issued directives for employees over the age of 70 to work from home to limit physical contact with elders.

Mayo said her members are very social, and being hunkered down at home has been an adjustment for many. It's why she's been taking the time to check in with her most isolated members by phone and connecting them with volunteers willing to help out with pharmacy and grocery runs.

"Every day, I'm on the phone at least five-to-10 times a day, calling various people to see how they are, how's everything going, thinking of them, and hopefully when this is all over, we'll get together again real soon," she said.

"It's very important that we don't forget about anyone, so they don't feel alone."

Protecting and respecting elders

Lloyd Phillips, the commissioner of Public Safety in Kahnawake, said there are no confirmed cases in the community, although a doctor working at the local hospital tested positive for the coronavirus this week. The First Nation is vulnerable to the virus spreading fast because family members are close and visit each other often, said Phillips. 

Lloyd Phillips, the commissioner of public safety at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"We know there's going to be impacts across the board, we know there's impacts on individuals, on businesses, and people's lives, but it's a requirement to protect the most vulnerable and to protect our elders," said Phillips. "We have to take extra measures to protect our elders, which also falls in lines with our traditions of ensuring we are respecting our elders."

That was reflected in a decision by one of the community's organizations to postpone Kahnawake's annual cultural awareness month that takes place every April.

"While discouraging, the health and safety of our elders, youth, and community as whole, is of the utmost priority," said Lisa Phillips, executive director of the Kanien'kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, in a press release this week.

"Our elders as our knowledge holders are our most precious resource for our language and culture and we must take seriously our responsibility to protect them."

Cultural values

For others, the pandemic has demonstrated a difference in western and Indigenous values. Courtney Skye, a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute in Toronto and member of Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, said her community recognizes the intergenerational value of having elders around. 

Courtney Skye is a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto. (CBC News)

For example, elders are a resource for language revitalization efforts, she said. They also fill the role of grandparents in child welfare matters. 

"Non-Indigenous young people are still going on spring break, still going out partying. I don't necessarily see that in our communities as much. Our community has been very willing, and understands that collective value that we have and the role that we all play in supporting one another," said Skye.

"Elders don't just have worth because they are caregivers or because they are knowledge keepers. They also just have human dignity and value themselves as people. For me, that's a really strong Haudenosaunee value."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.