This is the most serious it’s ever been’: First Nations chiefs in Yukon concerned over COVID-19 spike


First Nations chiefs in the Yukon are raising alarm over a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

On Nov. 8 the territory reinstated a state of emergency when more than 80 cases were confirmed over the previous weekend.

There are currently 171 active cases in the territory, the bulk of which are in Whitehorse. As of Wednesday, there were 119 confirmed active cases there.

“This the most serious it’s ever been,” says Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) in Whitehorse.

It’s very concerning, and the situation we’re in right now is very, very serious.”

Bill says KDFN has confirmed there are 14 active cases in the First Nation, though she notes there could be even more unconfirmed cases.

Out of precaution, KDFN has closed its offices and reduced its programming.

She says citizens are stressed and anxious about the COVID-19 spike, especially parents of school children.

I saw somebody who said she was thinking of quitting her job because there have been so many school closures. There’s really no one else to rely on,” Bill says.

She adds she’s particularly concerned about how the virus will affect those struggling with the territory’s opioid crisis, an issue her First Nation is struggling with.

“As a leader, it’s very stressful,” she says. “The First Nations people are being disproportionally affected in both the epidemic and the opioid crisis.”

Bill says KDFN has confirmed there are 14 active cases in the First Nation, though she notes there could be even more unconfirmed cases.

Out of precaution, KDFN has closed its offices and reduced its programming.

She says citizens are stressed and anxious about the virus, especially parents of school children.

I saw somebody who said she was thinking of quitting her job because there’s been so many school closures. There’s really no one else to rely on,” Bill says.

She adds she’s particularly concerned about how the virus will affect those struggling with the territory’s opioid crisis, an issue her First Nation is struggling with.

“As a leader, it’s very stressful,” she says. “The First Nations people are being disproportionally affected in both the epidemic and the opioid crisis.”

State of emergency

While there’s only one active case in Haines Junction, 135 km west of Whitehorse, the community’s First Nation isn’t taking any chances.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) declared their own state of emergency on Nov. 10.

According to a press release, the state of emergency gives CAFN government “the flexibility to act quickly and efficiently to put measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to our CAFN Citizens and communities.”

Kaaxnox, Dän nätthe äda Chief Steve Smith says the state of emergency was also declared because around half of the First Nation’s population lives in Whitehorse.

He says he’s concerned about the recent numbers as they indicate fully vaccinated people are getting sick, as well as the fact children under the age of 12 who can’t get vaccinated are getting infected.

“We’re more than concerned,” he says.

Smith says the current is quite different from earlier this year when Yukon was leading Canada in case numbers and vaccine uptake. Yukon’s success lead to the relaxation of many restrictions, including the wearing of masks inside public spaces earlier this summer.

Those restrictions, among others, have now been reinstated.

“We thought we were doing okay then. We were a maskless society again, then we started to see some spikes happening again…All of a sudden I think we’ve found ourselves where nobody predicted or where we hoped it would go,” Smith says.

Smith says CAFN is now conducting rapid testing to keep citizens safe.

Meanwhile, other First Nations are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Ross River Dena Council (RRDC) in Ross River has declared its community’s COVID-19 risk level is level four, which is categorized as high risk.

While there are no active cases in the community, measures are in place to prevent spread. RRDC offices are closed and there is a checkpoint on standby.

Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation in Carmacks has also closed its administration buildings until Nov. 22. There are currently nine active cases in the community.

As of Friday 12 people have died in the territory from the virus.

 

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.