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How the chief of Bearskin Lake led his community through the COVID-19 crisis

Bearskin Lake First Nation Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin sits at his computer for a final interview about the epidemic that has engulfed his community in Ontario’s Far North for nearly three weeks.

There’s a bit of glare on the camera, right on his face, so he stands up with some newspaper and moves off the screen to adjust the light.

“Let me do a little studio,” he laughed.

Kamenawatamin knows what journalists need for the shot. He’s been taking their calls almost every day for the past few weeks as he recovers from COVID-19 at his home. He is one of more than 220 people who have tested positive since the outbreak began in the air-accessible community of about 400 people, located 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

This problem solved, Kamenawatamin sat down. A landline rings on the answering machine. A cell phone vibrates nearby.

He leans towards the camera and thinks back to the first days of the epidemic: those who answered their call for help and who made them wait.

The call for help

From the start on December 27, key personnel tested positive for the virus – members of the band council, the pandemic team and other frontline workers, including people who deliver drugs. fuel and wood to keep buildings heated, provide security, and manage COVID -19 ordeals.

“And the numbers kept adding and adding and adding positive cases,” the chief said.

Babies, the elderly and frontline workers all tested positive, leaving only a handful of workers to tend and provide essentials for the hundreds of people who have been forced to self-isolate in their homes.

The remote community entered a complete lockdown, and then a state of emergency was declared on December 29.

Kamenawatamin heard that a few homes with young children were without power and didn’t have enough firewood to get through the night with temperatures plunging below -30 C. He went to the community radio station, a source said. vital to many communities in the Far North, and called on any frontline staff who tested negative to rush out and help.

More than 200 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Bearskin Lake First Nation, a community of about 400 people more than 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

The cry for help was heard by some in Muskrat Dam, a nearby community about 100 kilometers from Bearskin Lake. A few people drove down the winter road that night and started chopping wood, the chief said.

“This is the kind of help I wanted when I declared an emergency.”

Surrounding communities are mobilizing to help

The First Nation was overwhelmed with support from surrounding communities, Kamenawatamin said.

Hourly charters arrived from First Nations and towns in northern Ontario, stocked with food, medical kits and other essentials like diapers, hygiene products and traditional medicines. The communities a little closer sent supplies and volunteers via the winter road and even by snowmobile.

“They came in and,” Kamenawatamin interrupted, visibly fighting back tears before continuing after a long pause, “compassion, you know, at their expense, for their own safety… I was overwhelmed.”

How the chief of Bearskin Lake led his community through the COVID-19 crisis
More than two dozen snowmobiles are loaded with food, cut wood and other supplies outside a school in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, as they prepare to bring essential items to Bearskin Lake First Nation. (Submitted by Lyndon Nanokeesic)

When asked if Bearskin Lake could have made it without the help of other First Nations, Kamenawatamin replied “probably not”.

This is a sentiment shared by many members of the community.

Disappointment with the government, military response

Terrilyn Wemigwans, whose three-year-old daughter Callie tested positive for COVID-19, said it was the surrounding communities that gave them hope.

As for the government and the military, Wemigwans said it seemed “they don’t want to come here.”

On January 3, as the number of cases continued to rise and the test positivity rate exceeded 50 percent, Kamenawatamin called for military assistance.

WATCH | Community members react to the government’s response:

How the chief of Bearskin Lake led his community through the COVID-19 crisis

Bearskin Lake First Nation members express frustration with government response to request for assistance

Charles Fox, former Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and a member of the Bearskin Lake First Nation, joins Power & Politics to discuss the COVID 19 outbreak in this community and the government’s response to calls for it. aid. 6:22

The Chief expressed frustration at what he saw as a slow and inadequate response.

“I didn’t want help next month or next week. It was a declaration of emergency,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why there was so much bureaucracy and so much ‘evaluations to do to get what he said. needed.

In declaring a state of emergency, the chief said he was broadcasting that Bearskin Lake needed someone to come and establish a command center to oversee the response until the situation reached a point where the First Nation was able to help itself.

Instead, it was three days before the First Nation was notified of funding from Indigenous Services Canada, which approved $ 1.1 million throughout the first week of January. It took nearly two weeks after the declaration of emergency for the Canadian Forces to send three Canadian Rangers from headquarters in Borden, Ontario, to support the community.

How the chief of Bearskin Lake led his community through the COVID-19 crisis
Boxes of food were prepared for distribution to households in Bearskin Lake First Nation. (Submitted by Rode McKay)

The federal government said seven rangers had been activated to help, but four of those military reservists were local and already affected by the outbreak. Two of them were exhausted, after spending weeks volunteering on the front lines, and two had not come forward on Wednesday, according to Kamenawatamin, who said they may still be in isolation or that they were were supporting their own families.

An additional three-member Canadian Armed Forces “leadership team” was dispatched to Bearskin Lake on Thursday, according to a tweet from National Defense Minister Anita Anand.

Government in daily contact with community, says Hajdu

The answer fell far short of what Kamenawatamin said was expected and needed. Yet after three weeks, there remains a fundamental mismatch between how Bearskin Lake leaders and ministry officials understand the effort.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said on Thursday that “there has been no delay in responding to growing demands for community support.”

Hajdu said government officials called daily, sometimes twice a day, with leaders in Bearskin Lake to make sure they had everything they needed. She expressed her own frustration at criticism of the ministry’s handling of the epidemic.

“When I hear that communities always struggle with this feeling of being supported, it obviously makes me want to understand how we can better meet their needs and how we can better open up channels of communication,” she said. declared.

How the chief of Bearskin Lake led his community through the COVID-19 crisis
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said federal government officials were in daily contact with community leaders in Bearskin Lake. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

Hajdu added that her staff are now working to streamline processes for Indigenous communities to seek help, at the request of Manitoba First Nations, but she deferred the issue of speeding up requests for military assistance. from First Nations to the Minister of Defense, who was not available for an interview with CBC News.

Bearskin Lake publicly requested military support on the morning of January 3, but Ontario’s solicitor general did not submit the request for federal assistance until the evening of January 6. A statement from the Solicitor General did not clarify why it had taken four full days. to send this letter to Ottawa.

It’s time to heal

There is some hope to be found these days, Kamenawatamin said. No lives have been lost to COVID-19 since December, which he attributes in part to a high adult vaccination rate of over 80%. The number of active cases has declined significantly since the peak of the epidemic.

Now the chief says it’s time to start rebuilding and healing as a community.

“We just want to get back to some normalcy,” he said.

But the community is exhausted, Kamenawatamin said, and frontline workers are exhausted. Even as they attempt to recover, responders must remain vigilant for other disasters – such as a roaring fire on Wednesday that threatened to consume a young family’s home, the second in as many weeks.

As the leader of a remote First Nation with limited infrastructure and resources, Kamenawatamin has a clear message to others in Ontario’s Far North: Be prepared and be prepared.