COVID-19 cases in First Nations spur leaders to call for field hospitals

As COVID-19 cases rise on reserves, First Nations leaders are calling for "outside of the box" thinking to deal with the pandemic.

Cases are located in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec

People leave a meeting between Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and Mohawk leaders on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory south of Montreal February 22, 2020. The community's memories of the Oka crisis make it reluctant to accept military help to cope with the pandemic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As COVID-19 cases rise on reserves, First Nations leaders are calling for "outside of the box" thinking to deal with the pandemic.

Chief Jason Henry of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, near Sarnia, Ont., said he is in discussions with the Department of National Defence in the hopes of turning two arenas into a self-isolation centre and a regional field hospital to serve eight surrounding First Nations, along with the surrounding county and municipality.

"What I envision is a collaborative effort," Henry said.

"Thinking outside of the box, where we put our jurisdictional boundaries aside [instead] of arguing politically about who has responsibility for health care ... and we work collaboratively to battle this."

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

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Thursday there have been 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in First Nations across the country.

Two of the cases are in Saskatchewan, four are in Ontario and nine are in Quebec, said the department. At least two patients required hospitalization, officials said.

But the numbers on First Nations in Ontario appear low. 

Six Nations near Hamilton, Ont. said Thursday it has seven confirmed cases in its community, and Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation has one confirmed case. 

Henry said one of his members developed symptoms of COVID-19 while in hospital for an unrelated ailment. He said he is worried the hospital may release the patient in the coming days while still coronavirus-positive, with orders to self-isolate.

"For many Canadians, that might be OK," Henry said. 

"But on First Nations, with the chronic overcrowding, multi-generations living in single-family dwellings … it becomes very difficult to self-isolate and contain the virus."

Ottawa exploring scenarios involving military

There have been several requests for military support to deal with the pandemic from other First Nations, including Pimicikamak, also referred to as Cross Lake, and Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba.

Miller said Thursday the federal government is looking at various scenarios which would see the Canadian Armed Forces deployed, and is engaging with communities and provinces about their needs.

Miller on military support for First Nations

3 years ago
Duration 1:25
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller talks about what happens when a First Nation requests military support to prepare for the flooding season, but the province doesn't think it's necessary.

"These are very, very grave requests that we need to consider as a country," he said.

"It would be foolish to exclude those scenarios, even though they would be ones we don't want to contemplate."

Lloyd Phillips, commissioner of public safety for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake near Montreal, said his community doesn't want or need military assistance, given the still-fresh memories of the 1990 Oka Crisis.

"It's a very hard no," Phillips said.

"We have our ability to take care of what we need inside Kahnawake. Obviously, we have a history … That's still fresh in people's minds."

Kahnawake has five confirmed cases of COVID-19. Phillips said those community members are on their way to recovery. 

"The overall situation in the community is obviously tense, like anywhere else," Phillips said. "But we are managing quite well."

Phillips said Quebec has funded a drive-thru testing facility for the community in the parking lot of the hospital.

Money coming, says minister

Indigenous Services Canada has set aside $305 million for the COVID-19 response in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities.

Miller said the money would be flowing within the next week. 

"We are continuing to be focused on supporting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable," he said.

"There is a historical mistrust of government in a number of Indigenous communities. This is a gap that needs to be filled by Indigenous leadership and they are filling it exceptionally well."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he is deeply concerned about the impact outbreaks of COVID-19 could have on First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

First Nations are receiving $215 million, Inuit $45 million and Métis Nation communities $30 million under the $305 million Indigenous Community Support Fund.

Each First Nation is being allocated a base amount of $50,000 plus additional funds based on a formula which factors in population, community well-being and remoteness.

Regional and urban Indigenous organizations can apply for a portion of the remaining $15 million to help the off-reserve population through a call for proposals.

There is also a separate $100 million envelope that communities can qualify for to address short-term needs, request personal protective equipment, get out public health messages and create or update pandemic plans.

The pandemic isn't the only challenge facing Indigenous communities.

Some First Nations, such as the Kashechewan along Ontario's side of the James Bay Coast, are preparing for the annual flood season.

Miller said his department is working on flood mitigation plans that take COVID-19 into account. 

As part of his community's preparations, Henry has asked Indigenous Services Canada for testing kits, but has not heard back yet.

Department officials said they are ordering swabs to send to those First Nations that want them.

Henry said the situation is urgent. He has a message for other Indigenous leaders.

"Take this seriously," Henry said. "Don't look in the rearview mirror and say we should've done things ahead of time. Do them now."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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