The federal government’s response to a plea for help from the Bearskin Lake First Nation shows its “indifference” amid a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than half of the isolated community, says one northern Ontario MP.
The community, located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, declared a state of emergency on Dec. 28, then asked for military help on Jan. 3. In interviews, community leaders said they asked for 30 to 40 military personnel. The provincial government forward their request to the federal government last Thursday and while the province spelled out the kind of help required, the province did not specify the number of military personnel required.
Ottawa, in response, activated six Canadian Rangers, which community members have described as “disappointing.” Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu has said the government is also paying the costs to deploy dozens of volunteers and health-care workers from nearby communities.
But NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the adjacent riding of Timmins—James Bay, said the decision not to offer the Canadian Forces members requested by the community demonstrates the government’s “indifference” to the health of Indigenous Canadians.
“I think what this government is doing here is sending a message not just to Bearskin Lake, but to all the other First Nation communities who are facing Omicron to say, ‘Don’t bother calling. You’re on your own,’” Angus told Global News on Tuesday.
He pointed specifically to a Twitter post by Defence Minister Anita Anand showing the Canadian Forces members who have been deployed to help out in COVID-19 vaccine clinics in Quebec amid rising cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“You’re telling the people of Bearskin Lake: ‘Sorry — too bad, so sad, you get nothing.’”
More than half of the remote community’s 400 residents have been infected with COVID-19 in recent weeks, with Bearskin Lake Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin describing the strain on members as “almost at a breaking point.”
Kamenawatamin, who also has COVID-19, says he has had two COVID-19 vaccines plus a booster but tested positive over the weekend.
He said that so far, no one in the community has had to be hospitalized or required medical evacuation — something he attributed as likely linked to strong vaccine uptake. But he said with roughly 60 of the 120 residences in the community under quarantine, they need help with logistics, like delivering food and water to people in isolation, and chopping wood.
Some 90 per cent of the community relies on wood-burning stoves for heat, he said.
Temperatures across the region have dropped into a deep freeze over recent days.
Conservative MP Eric Melillo, who represents the Kenora riding comprising the community, called for more help on Twitter on Tuesday. He said the community is “overwhelmed.”
“I have spoken with Chief Kamenawatamin and joined him in calling for faster action from the government to mobilize support,” Melillo wrote in a column addressed to constituents on Sunday.
“It’s also clear that, in the longer term, work needs to be done to ensure that Bearskin Lake and other remote communities have adequate housing and resources. The pandemic has shown us how dire this need is; we cannot let communities be unprepared for future emergencies.”
Anand has said the activation of the Canadian Rangers in the community is specifically intended to help with logistical needs, like transporting and delivering critical supplies.
The Rangers are reserve members of the Canadian Forces who work in isolated and remote areas.
There are roughly 5,000 of them across the country, many Indigenous.
Following an initial assessment of the community’s needs by Rangers over the weekend, though, it remains unclear why the 30 to 40 Canadian Forces members the community says it originally requested were deemed not to be needed.
Global News requested details from the Canadian Forces as well as a copy of the assessment.
No response has yet been received.
Hajdu has said the government is covering the costs of bringing in dozens of volunteers and health-care workers from nearby communities over the last two weeks.
Specifically, she said in a tweet last week that her department is paying for the 28 Windigo Tribal Council members and six community members currently on the ground in Bearskin Lake, as well as three primary care nurses and one advanced care paramedic who have been there since Dec. 30, 2021.
In addition, Hajdu says her department has “helped coordinate” bringing in 12 band members from Thunder Bay, two community disaster workers from an Ontario non-profit, three Team Rubicon volunteers to help with chopping firewood and fire safety, and three additional nurses from the region.
“Obviously, people are scared when you have half a community that is either positive or close contact…. I understand the anxiety that people are feeling and frustration because it’s a frustrating situation,” Hajdu told Global News.
She said the government has spent roughly $1.2 million during the community outbreak so far trying to bring more people in to meet the needs in Bearskin Lake.
“We’ll be there for Bearskin Lake for as long as it takes with whatever it takes to help them get through this, this difficult time,” Hajdu said.
COVID-19: Bearskin Lake leader says feds had ‘dismissive attitude’ following pleas for assistance
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