Bearskin Lake First Nation says the help from the Canadian Armed Forces is appreciated, but it’s not enough to fight their ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are disappointed with Canada’s response”, said Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin, in a prepared statement.
“Our community was anxiously waiting for help, and we were comforted by the thought that Canada would step in to provide us with much-needed physical and moral support. In the end, however, this help has been minimal.”
The Chief says initially, they were told that 7 Canadian Rangers would be deployed, but by January 12, only 3 had arrived. He says he was told that another 4 would be deployed, but 2 of them are still unconfirmed, leaving the community with a total of 5 Rangers.
“There’s only been a handful of Canadian Rangers deployed to the community. In my last discussion with the Chief, he was clear that this response was simply inadequate and it was not meeting the needs of the community,” said Kenora MP Eric Melillo.
“The federal government must take proper action. They must listen to the Chief and community members, rather than continue with the band-aid solutions they’ve come up with thus far,” Melillo adds.
Bearskin Lake declared a state of emergency due to an outbreak of COVID-19 infections on December 29. By January 3, 174 individuals had tested positive for the virus – representing about half of the community’s total population of about 400.
The majority of households, including the Chief, are still under quarantine and isolation at this time.
Chief Kamenawatamin called on the federal government to bring in the military’s help on January 1, which was supported by Ontario’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones on January 6.
By January 10, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair had announced that members of the Canadian Armed Forces would assist Bearskin Lake with delivering essential supplies, food and groceries and wood needed to heat homes until at least January 23.
Indigenous Services Canada has also deployed a Rapid Response Team, primary care nurses, paramedics and environmental health officers to help the community with surge healthcare capacity during the outbreak.
Kamenawatamin adds that this situation is just another example of dishonesty and neglect from the Canadian government when it comes to assisting First Nation communities.
“I must now focus my energies and attention on the mental health crisis this situation has created and work towards the positive healing of my community.”
Bearskin Lake First Nation is located 425 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout on Lake Michikan. It’s accessible by air throughout the year and by ice roads in the winter.
The community has seen a $900,000 investment from the federal government to assist in the fight against COVID-19. This is in addition to the $3.9 million the community received in March of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.