COVID-19: Bearskin Lake at ‘tipping point’ amid outbreak

OTTAWA – The chief of Bearskin Lake said the remote community of northern Ontario is “almost at a breaking point” after half of its population tested positive for COVID-19, as he renewed his call for immediate federal help.

Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin joined other indigenous leaders in a press conference on Friday to call on ministers to send emergency aid, including staff, to distribute essential supplies such as food , water and wood for the stoves to keep residents warm in freezing weather.

“We need help now and boots on the pitch,” he said.

The First Nation is in a state of emergency as COVID-19 has infected 201 of its 400 residents, including elders and a nine-month-old baby. The epidemic has meant that much of the community is isolating itself.

There are now only around 30 frontline workers in the community able to provide essential supplies to those forced to self-isolate because they or their family members have tested positive, said Kamenawatamin.

About 80% of the population is vaccinated, but there is a lack of testing kits, places to self-isolate and other crucial resources, the chief said.

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said a request for military aid was received through the province of Ontario on Thursday evening, which the federal government is now urgently considering.

“The federal government is working as quickly as it can to respond to a request for military assistance,” said Andrew MacKendrick.

Charles Fox, former Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and resident of Bearskin Lake, has warned that COVID-19 is now spreading to other neighboring First Nations communities.

Fox sharply criticized what he called a “disdainful attitude” on the part of federal ministers.

“Because we’re a remote First Nation people don’t care,” he said. “Truth and reconciliation – where are they? “

Fox said if the scale of the outbreak had been in Toronto, there would have been a national outcry.

Frank McKay, chair of the Windigo First Nations Council, a coalition of leaders representing several communities including Bearskin Lake, said the community doctor predicted that COVID-19 cases would continue to rise.

He said the struggling community now needs urgent mental health support to help them cope with the unprecedented crisis.

McKay criticized the government for taking too long to respond, adding that as Canadian citizens, members of indigenous communities deserve “the same rights as all Canadians.”

“We as remote First Nations are beggars on our own land,” he said.

He said $ 1.1 million in funding had been made available by the federal government, but that would only cover the cost of chartered planes for the remote community served by air.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who called the press conference, said it “shouldn’t be that difficult for the federal government to send aid.”

“The people of Bearskin Lake are completely overwhelmed with trying to get essentials like firewood to heat homes and groceries for the isolated,” Angus said.

“They desperately need help to get them through the next few days and weeks. The Liberal government must stop dragging its feet and urgently help this community.

Grand Chief Derek Fox of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said Bearskin Lake has received offers of help, including from other Indigenous groups and doctors. But federal help was needed and they should “cut red tape” and respond, he said.

Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare praised Kamenawatamin for his leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak and urged the government to immediately deploy the Canadian Armed Forces to help the struggling community.

He said the Armed Forces should remain “on standby” to help other First Nations communities in the weeks and months to come.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told a press conference in Ottawa earlier Friday that the government will do everything in its power to support Indigenous communities, such as Bearskin Lake, facing COVID crises. -19.

LeBlanc said his fellow ministers are in frequent contact with their provincial counterparts to coordinate aid.

Nicolas Moquin, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said he is working closely with leaders of Bearskin Lake First Nation and other local organizations to support the community.

The department said it had deployed a rapid response team to help, including three registered nurses and a paramedic. Three nurses from other First Nations were also present, along with three people to help community members chop firewood, he added.

Indigenous Services Canada said in December the government approved funding for isolation supplies and additional funding of $ 1.12 million for community needs.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Hajdu is in daily contact with leaders of indigenous communities to ensure they have enough rapid tests, tracing support and vaccines.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 7, 2022.

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