Bearskin Lake First Nation ‘almost at the breaking point’ amid COVID-19 outbreak
Tim Brody - Editor
After calling for military assistance on Jan. 3, four members of the Canadian Armed Forces Rangers arrived in Bearskin Lake First Nation on Jan. 9.
Annie Cullinan, Press Secretary for Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, shared in a written statement, “Late Thursday night, we received a formal Request for Federal Assistance (RFA) from the Government of Ontario for Bearskin Lake First Nation. Upon receipt, Public Safety Canada officials immediately engaged with their provincial counterparts, and partners from across government, to assess the needs of the community and identify federal resources.
“This afternoon, Minister Blair spoke with Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin to inform him that the RFA has been approved.”
The four Rangers have been tasked to:
• Integrate into the local Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) command post in the community to coordinate activities with the Chief and his Council and other partners;
• Provide limited logistical and limited general support to include, but not limited to, transportation assistance, resupply and humanitarian assistance;
• Support the community in the distribution of real-life-support requirements such as food, water, firewood and care packages;
• Assist with the distribution of information from community, provincial and federal entities related to personal protective health measures and layered risk mitigation strategies;
• Where necessary, conduct community wellness checks; and
• Provide limited assistance to establish a local Alternative Isolation Area (AIA)
Cullinan informed that additional CAF Rangers will be activated in the community over the coming days.
“This deployment will take place for an initial two-week period from January 9, 2022 until January 23, 2022, with the possibility of extension,” she informed.
On Dec. 29, Bearskin Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the community.
On Jan. 7, MP for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus, held a press conference with Lefty Kamenawatamin, Chief of Bearskin Lake, Frank McKay, Windigo Tribal Council, Charles Fox, former Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and resident of Bearskin Lake, along with NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox.
“We’re almost at the breaking point. I think people are exhausted, I think emotionally and physically,” shared Chief Kamenawatamin.
“We need the help now and boots on the ground,” he added.
Fifty percent of the community, 201 people as of Jan. 7, had tested positive for COVID-19 despite an adult vaccination rate of 84 per cent. The community reported in a Jan. 3 news release that the majority of households are under quarantine.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) shared on Jan. 7 that it is working closely with Bearskin Lake First Nation leadership, Windigo First Nations Tribal Council, the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA), and the local public health unit to support the community.
ISC shared in an emailed statement that, “On December 30, ISC deployed a Rapid Response Team with access to a GeneXpert automated molecular testing device answering the call for urgent testing at the start of the outbreak. ISC immediately increased their nursing resources on the same day.
“The resources available in the community for the week of January 5-9, 2022, included:
• Three (3) registered nurses and one (1) advanced care paramedic from ISC;
• 12 Bearskin First Nation band members from Thunder Bay and two (2) Community Disaster Relief Ontario employees from NGO Alliance;
• Three (3) Team Rubicon members to assist community members with cutting wood for fuel and providing fire safety monitoring;
• Two (2) public health nurses from the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority;
• One (1) Home Care Nurse from Windigo First Nations Tribal Council; and
• Community members receiving and delivering food and essential supplies to affected households.
“Testing has been coordinated by Matawa Tribal Council nurses in Thunder Bay, conducting a pre-test for COVID-19 of all passengers before boarding flights to take them to the community.”
Patty Hajdu. Minister of Indigenous Services Tweeted on Jan. 6, “In the past week more than $1.1 million in additional monies has been approved for the community.”
She went on to inform, “On December 31, $483K was approved for food security, PPE and prevention supplies, isolation accommodation and set-up, transportation, and wages for community-based
“On January 3, an additional $415K was approved for Bearskin Lake First Nation, to put in place airport security, winter road, community perimeter security personnel and associated costs.
“On January 4, ISC approved an additional $217K in needs-based funding to provide enhanced community security by funding community peacekeepers and for transportation to and from the community by air for volunteers and service providers.”
Frank McKay, Chairman and CEO of Windigo First Nation Council, said the community does not have the capacity or the infrastructure necessary to respond to such a crisis.
“Bearskin Lake declared a state of emergency… The community went into immediate lockdown, but due to overcrowding and lack of community infrastructure, where the infected could not be separated from the uninfected, the virus spread very quickly. Federal resources were slow to come and were confirmed only after numerous meetings and extensive lobbying on our part. On Jan. 2 crisis funds were finally announced, yet these continue to be wholly inadequate. The community continues to struggle due to the lack of financial support and personnel on the ground,” McKay shared.
“They’re still in need of basics like firewood, food and water and on the ground personnel to replace the community workers who have not become sick. They’re also in need of mental health support services… there’s a lot of fear, anxiety, stress”
McKay said the community is overwhelmed, “Yet Prime Minister Trudeau’s government continues to drag their feet and provide limited resources to address Bearskin’s crisis. As Canadian citizens, we deserve the same rights and recognitions as all other Canadians. When we ask for help, we should get an immediate positive response.”
Charles Fox shared a similar message, “We’re overwhelmed. We need assistance in all categories, medical, transportation, personnel, food, water, vehicles, the list goes on and on. When you have the government responding that they’re thinking about sending in the military, I haven’t seen anything, yet, they’re equating that to having the military deal with the wood cutting issues and distributing wood to the membership, and they’re also looking at distribution.
“When you look at the needs that have been identified in terms of the gaps that exist, you have to look at security, you need a good 15 to 20 security personnel in the community. You need medical people. You need more nurses. You need more testing materials and kits and you need antigen rapid tests. You need PPE equipment. We don’t have that. We need transportation. We need about 20 to 25 vehicles to distribute all the supplies, haul the wood, cut the wood, and to as well transport potential patients. We need accommodations for personnel going in. I’ve heard that 40 personnel are dispatched. I haven’t seen anybody.”
Charles Fox said, “I’ve heard about the government subsidizing the efforts and giving us $1.1 million… it costs $25,000 to send in a charter with 16 personnel. The estimate that we had, was that we would need about a million dollars worth of charters alone to address getting personnel in there. We’re not talking about groceries; we’re not talking about water that needs to be sent in. We’re not talking about all the supplies and materials related to medical. You’ve got to look at the whole picture in order to begin to contain the Omicron virus that we suspect is there.”
NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox, a member of Bearskin Lake First Nation, stated, “This will only get worse and spread if the virus is not stopped. Most of the houses in Bearskin Lake First Nation are heated by a wood stove. The community needs people to chop wood and deliver it to every house. Water, food and medical supplies also need to be delivered. People and vehicles are required. People are also required to keep the vehicles running in minus 30 to minus 40 weather. This is why Chief Kam is calling for boots on the ground.”
“Bearskin has received tremendous support from neighbouring communities, like Muskrat Dam and Big Trout Lake and we are so grateful for their assistance,” he said.
“NAN and our tribal councils are responding as best as we can to arrange charters to ship vital supplies of PPE, food, and water, but we are not equipped to deal with such emergencies,” he stated.
Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa visited the community on Dec. 6.
“When you start driving around, you notice that you don’t see people. I never saw one child. It was so ghost town like,” he said.
“At the local co-op store they had one negative worker… then I spoke with the hydro guy, he was the only negative hydro worker. He was staying at the hydro site because his family has COVID… they had one guy to provide gas. They were only open from 1 to 4 p.m… the finance people are sick. There’s no way you can pay people,” Mamakwa shared.
“I saw the women that were at the local school gym. I went to visit with them. I went to talk to them. They’re the ones that sort and distribute the supplies and the food that have been sent in from neighbouring First Nations. They’re tired. They’re overwhelmed, very emotional. When I talked to them, I could see tears in their eyes. I could hear it in their voice that they’re tired,” he commented.
“I went there because in the media, both levels of government, both ministers were saying that they’re on the ground, and I didn’t see anything. It’s neighbouring communities that are supporting Bearskin Lake,” he said.
He further stated, “That’s what’s concerning is then the government says they’ve put in so much money and they have people on the ground, that’s the way that people have been treated for a long time. When we talk about colonialism, when we talk about oppression, what they’re doing is part of the colonialism 101 playbook and they can’t continue to do that. That’s not right… there’s probably 20 to 30 people supporting the community of 400 plus people; and they’re tired.”
Mamakwa said members of Muskrat Dam First Nation brought wood to the community. “KI provided supplies; I think it was 27 skidoos with sleds that went there full of supplies. The day before, North Caribou Lake, they delivered some wood and supplies as well. Sandy Lake fundraised. Neskantaga sent bottled water. There’s been so much support,” he said.
“It has certainly taken a lot of pressure to get Ontario and the Federal Government to finally show up and help Bearskin Lake. Chief Kam has said many, many times over the past week that they need boots (on the ground), they need helpers to provide the respite to the small amount of frontline workers that are there. It shouldn’t have to be this difficult to get support for health emergencies,” Mamakwa stated.
Kenora MP Eric Melillo released the following statement on the crisis in Bearskin Lake First Nation on January 7, “I have been following the COVID-19 crisis in Bearskin Lake with deep concern.
“I have spoken to Chief Kamenawatamin about his community’s needs and joined his call for the government to move more quickly to mobilize support.
“My staff has also been in touch with the Ministry of Indigenous Services for updates, and our Official Opposition Shadow Minister for Indigenous Services has been fully briefed.
“It is clear that the people of Bearskin Lake cannot wait any longer for support. The military needs to be sent in as soon as possible to assist community members.
“In the longer term, we need to invest in improved healthcare and housing in remote and Indigenous communities, to ensure they are prepared for future public health emergencies.
“I’d like to commend the residents of surrounding communities who have fundraised, chartered planes, and braved freezing weather in trucks and skidoos to deliver supplies to Bearskin Lake. Thank you for stepping up.
“It is past time for the government to step up as well.”
Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority shared in a Jan. 7 press release that, “As COVID-19 activity increases throughout the region, other communities brace for (a) similar situation to Bearskin Lake and voice outrage at the inadequacy of government supports and the preventable delays.” As of Jan. 7, there were active COVID-19 cases in 13 of the communities
“The situation in Bearskin Lake clearly demonstrates the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 for First Nations” stated SLFNHA Public Health Physician, Dr. Lloyd Douglas. “The impacts are devastating to First Nations communities who face major infrastructure shortages, boil water advisories, overcrowding and complex health conditions. None of the 33 First Nations have hospitals in the community and communities face an imminent risk of overwhelming their community pandemic resources.”
On December 30, 2021, Sioux Lookout Area First Nations declared a regional lockdown in an effort to curb the Omicron variant.
“SLFNHA and the Sioux Lookout Area Chiefs are demanding immediate and urgent action from Canada and Ontario to support communities as they work to protect their communities from the deadly virus. Required resources include assessment and testing centres, enhanced perimeter security, isolation infrastructure, food security and operation and maintenance. SLFNHA and the Sioux Lookout Area Chiefs are also urging Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), policing services and other visiting service providers to immediately respect community protocols including isolation requirements and other protective measures to ensure the safety of their community members,”
“The governments have committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples which includes addressing the structural violence that exists as a result of colonization,” stated SLFNHA Board Chair John Cutfeet of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninnuwug. “This includes ensuring that both levels of government address the long-standing gaps in emergency management and public health while addressing the immediate crisis by providing the same access to tools, resources and supports as other areas in the country.”
Tania Cameron of Kenora collected $12,000 for groceries for Bearskin Lake First Nation, which she sent to Fresh Market Foods in Sioux Lookout. Cameron continues to accept donations to support Bearskin Lake First Nation by e-transfer [email protected] and by PayPal paypal.me/taniacameron807.
Fresh Market Foods Human Resources Manager Liz Ward shared, “Our order desk team shopped to maximize the donation and by using the Nutrition North Subsidy, a portion of the freight was subsidized. In addition, $7,000 worth of (air) purifiers was delivered to us and shipped up to the communities with the groceries.”
Anyone wishing to provide monetary donations, PPE supplies such as KN-95 or N-95 masks or non-perishable food items can contact Windigo First Nations Council Director of Operations Sadie Maxell at 807-628-2046 or email her at [email protected]windigo.on.ca.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to support the community at https://bit.ly/34BnBCd.
As of the morning of Dec. 10, over $45,000 had been raised.