Ontario First Nations 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' as COVID-19 preparations ramp up

Attawapiskat is one of the 49 northern Ontario First Nations that are members of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). Over the weekend NAN sent the first part of a funding request to the federal and Ontario governments detailing the needs of northern communities in the face of the pandemic.

Weeneebayko Area Health Authority says it would need an extra $12 million if pandemic lasted 3 months

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias stands amid supplies purchased to prepare community for a COVID-19 outbreak. (Chris Moonias/Facebook)

Attawapiskat resident Lucien Lazarus says he and his family are now washing their hands every time they re-enter the house. 

That's because the COVID-19 pandemic is the talk of Attawapiskat, Ont., prompting some residents to stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the local Northern store, he said. 

Lazarus returned home Monday afternoon from Moose Factory, Ont., where his wife was sent for treatment of a heart ailment. While the regional hospital there run by Weeneebayko Area Health Authority is rated as a low-risk zone for the coronavirus, the trip set him on edge. 

Lazarus lives with his wife, son and his partner along with their child in a five bedroom house in the community. However, others aren't so lucky and he worries about what would happen if the virus entered the community which faces a severe housing shortage with up to 12 people living under one roof.

"If that is really happening, with the flu that is coming around, I guess it will be lingering for a long time if it gets here," said Lazarus. "Because there is no isolation, we are too overcrowded."

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says Ottawa and Ontario have been sent a package outlining the needs of 49 First Nations in northern Ontario. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Attawapiskat is one of the 49 northern Ontario First Nations that are members of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). Over the weekend NAN sent the first part of a funding request to the federal and Ontario governments detailing the needs of northern communities in the face of the pandemic. 

"When you look at our communities, especially in remote parts of NAN, they are already behind. There is not enough basic supplies in many nursing stations [and] not enough nursing staff in many communities," said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who hoped to receive a response within the next 24 hours. 

"We are trying to identify what those needs are and we are asking both levels of government to make resources available to provide those, whether supplies, equipment and personnel."

Fiddler held a conference call with the 49 chiefs on Monday to gather information on what they specifically need for their communities. That will be included in an updated package to be sent to Ontario and Ottawa. 

Fiddler said there is still confusion among First Nations leaders on how exactly they can access a portion of the $1-billion COVID-19 package announced last week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I don't think there is enough clarity from Canada to tell community chiefs and health authorities in terms of how they can access the emergency fund," said Fiddler. 

"So in the absence of any process identified by Canada, we made our own submissions."

Pandemic plans outdated

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias, whose community is located about 433 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, said he's not waiting to figure out how the funding will work. He's already moved to purchase additional supplies — food and medical — to prepare his community.

"You can't wait forever, you have to use whatever you can right now, but it will impact other services in the community," said Moonias. 

"You're robbing Peter to pay Paul type of thing, that is what is happening."

Moonias said his community has issued notice it no longer wants outside visitors to travel to Neskantaga. On Monday afternoon, one of the councillors met with elders to discuss gathering traditional medicines. He said the First Nation also needs COVID-19 testing swabs because they only have about 17 at their disposal.

Moonias said he is also working on a new pandemic plan and local leadership is discussing options in the event they need to isolate people in a community.

 "Is it the community centre, or the gym, or is it those tents that the government says they are going to send up?" said Moonias. 

"We just don't know yet, we don't have the infrastructure, we don't have the buildings.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Canada says it is prepared to send specialized medical tents to conduct screening in First Nations, along with portable structures to isolate people in the event of an outbreak.

Fiddler said many communities haven't updated their pandemic plans in a decade.

Fiddler also wrote to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on March 12 in a letter that included a breakdown from WAHA — which provides health services to First Nations along Ontario's James Bay and Hudson Bay coast.

According to the health authority, it would need an additional $5 million to cover human resources, supplies and outreach if the pandemic hit the region and lasted a month. If the pandemic lasted three months, the health authority estimated it would need about $12 million extra.

However, WAHA has been designated as low risk for COVID-19 support by the Ontario Ministry of Health, according to the health authority. 

On Monday, NDP MPP's Sol Mamakwa, who represents the Kiiwetinoong riding in northwestern Ontario, and Guy Bourgouin, who represents the Mushkegowuk-James Bay riding in eastern Ontario, and NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the Timmins-James Bay federal riding, wrote Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and federal minister Miller asking them to reverse course.

"We are thus calling on the federal and provincial governments to do the right thing and thereby reconsider the 'low risk/low designation' of WAHA and to ramp up the preparedness plans for northern First Nations in Ontario before it is too late," said the letter. 

"And the clock is ticking."

Grand Chief Abram Benedict of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne says his community declared a state of emergency on Monday over COVID-19. (CBC News)

Six Nations to set up drive-thru screening

Further south, in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the Canada-U.S. border and sits about 120 kilometre west of Montreal, the band council there declared a state of emergency on Monday to free up resources in preparation for any outbreak. 

Akwesasne Mohawk Council Grand Chief Abram Benedict said he is also not waiting to figure out how to access COVID-19 funds before acting.

Benedict said they are working on opening an emergency operations centre jointly with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe which oversees the U.S. side of the community. 

The council has also scaled back its operations, directing non-essential staff to work from home and lessen the need for community members to attend offices to obtain services. It is also trying to establish a screening site in the community  through Ontario's regional health authority, he said.

The council has also issued a notice saying any community members who travel to Ottawa or Montreal need to self isolate for 14 days if they return to the community. 

With more cases showing up in Ontario, Quebec and in New York State, Benedict said Akwesasne faces a lot of risk.

"It's all around the community, it's about ensuring the risks to the community are minimized," he said

"And for those who are most vulnerable, create conditions for their health so they have minimal exposure."

In the sister Haudenosaunee community of Six Nations, which sits about 36 kilometres south of Hamilton, plans are under way to establish a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre and hotline by the end of the week.



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