Neskantaga First Nation issues state of emergency for members off reserve

The Neskantaga First Nation has declared a state of emergency because members living off reserve are contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Neskantaga is a remote Oji-Cree community on Attawapiskat Lake approximately 430 kms north of Thunder Bay.

According to Chief Christopher Moonias, it has less than 80 houses for the 479 residents.

“We have one house that has 14 people living in a two bedroom house,” Moonias told APTN News. “That’s five adults and nine children.”

Over 200 of Neskantaga residents live off reserve due to lack of housing.

Moonias says some of them suffer from social and health issues connected to being homeless and now they are contracting COVID-19.

So far there are 12 Neskantaga members in Thunder Bay with COVID, one on a ventilator in intensive care and more being hospitalized last night.

“It’s getting serious and those are off reserve members that didn’t get the vaccine,” Moonias says.

The Neskantaga First Nation received the Moderna vaccine and started vaccinating it’s members with the first dose early February. They are scheduled to receive their second shipment of doses at the beginning of March.

So far 88 per cent of their on-reserve members 18 and up have received their first dose.

“I’ve been pushing for Neskantaga members to receive the vaccine, doesn’t matter if they live off reserve or not, but that wasn’t supported,” Moonias complained.

As far as it is know, the COVID cases contracted by the First Nation members in Thunder Bay are not cases of the new variants.

In a news conference Wednesday, Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health Indigenous services, stressed that northern communities need to be careful not bringing cases of the new variants of concern from the south into their communities.

He said the variants are spreading across the country and Indigenous communities need to remain vigilant.

“Because there is constant traffic between the north and south and it’s just a matter of time before the first case will be showing up in whether it’s a first Nations, Inuit or Metis community,” Wong said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller also showed concern over the new, more contagious variants skulking their way across the country.

Miller echoed Moonias’ concern that overcrowded housing and lack of proper infrastructure still pose a great threat to community safety during the pandemic.

“Every COVID case is not the same if it is a northern and remote community that has a population per house hold that exceeds four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. It’s a tinderbox.”

Miller said the variants will inevitably get in and it wouldn’t surprise him if the variants are already in some Indigenous communities and said the outcome will be devastating.

Miller announced that vaccinations are underway for some Indigenous urban communities.

The Wabano centre, an Indigenous health and cultural centre in Ottawa’s east end, began vaccinating Elders last week. Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg have mobilized urban vaccination centres with plans underway for Indigenous vaccination centres in Saskatoon and Regina.

The national vaccinating advisory committee recommends all Indigenous adults be vaccinated by end of June.

“This is because Indigenous populations are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus due to unequal access to health care and socio-economic factors,” Miller said.

Miller said BC and Quebec are leading the way in terms of the number of Indigenous people vaccinated to date.

In the meantime Chief Moonias is asking for emergency housing for Neskantaga so he can bring his members home where they will be safe.

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