‘No one was listening’: Berens River members take action over COVID-19 fears

Berens River
(This checkpoint in Naotkamegwanning First Nation is one of many across Canada. Photo: Damian Joseph/APTN)

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. APTN News is reporting from across the country on the viral outbreak and how it is impacting Indigenous communities. Click here for more: COVID-19

Travel is restricted, events are cancelled, and people are being told to stay home across the country as Canada tries to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But when band members defied leaders of Berens River First Nation in northern Manitoba to flout social distancing rules in the local bar, Cyndy Stoneman and her friends took to the street.

“No one was listening to the chief and council when they were trying to close it down,” Stoneman said of the Saturday protest that was captured on video and posted to Facebook.

“We got frustrated because they weren’t getting anywhere.”

Because more than 50 people crowd into the Berens River Hotel on a daily basis, Stoneman said the council called Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries for help.

When that didn’t work, she said politicians parked a front-end loader outside the business as a barricade.

“The RCMP said ‘No’ [the bar is just outside the border of the Indigenous community, about 300 km north of Winnipeg] and said we had to move it because that’s not our jurisdiction.”

So eight women, including Stoneman, took matters into their own hands, drew up picket signs and headed over to the bar for what turned into a parking lot vigil until the 2 a.m. closing time.

At one point, they were joined by as many as a hundred people, Stoneman recalled with a chuckle Monday.

“They even made us a fire to keep warm,” she said, noting “some people were mad at us because they like to go there to drink and play slots.

“We’re thinking of the kids and the elders.”

Some of the patrons pointed out bars and lounges in others parts of Manitoba weren’t closed as part of pandemic control measures and the provincial state of emergency.

But Indigenous organizations and medical professionals have said people in First Nations are at greater risk of infection due to overcrowded housing, existing medical conditions and fewer health professionals and equipment to handle an outbreak.

(Berens River Hotel closed its bar and video slot machines after a community protest. Cyndy Stoneman photo)

Berens River, which is home to 3,000 people, is staffed by two nurses, who Stoneman said inspected the bar Saturday with two band councillors, and put their concerns in a letter to provincial and federal Indigenous organizations and health authorities.

Max Hopkins, bar manager at the Berens River Hotel, said the protest registered with the venue’s owners and the beverage room was now closed resulting in fewer hours for eight employees. Only the beer vendor remained open.

“I understand their concerns,” he said about the protesters Tuesday. “I’m kind of worried about my mom. She has respiratory issues.”

With the province closing winter roads at this time, Stoneman said council was erecting a checkpoint to police non-essential traffic on land roads in and out of the community as a precaution against COVID-19.

Berens River joins a number of other First Nations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario in employing voluntary lockdowns as part of their own pandemic plans and states of emergency.

(Two border guards at Cumberland House First Nation in Saskatchewan. Lionel Deschambeault Facebook)

Cumberland House, Sask., has posted guards at an access road checkpoint into the First Nation about 450 km from Saskatoon. Pinehouse Lake and Pelican Narrows, also in Saskatchewan, have checkpoints as a precaution against COVID-19.

Nearly 100 of Canada’s 634 First Nation are considered “isolated,” said the Assembly of First Nations.
But locked down shouldn’t mean shut out.
In Ontario’s Naotkamegwanning First Nation, formerly known as Whitefish Bay First Nation, the band council reassured members through a Facebook video they may be housebound but they aren’t forgotten.”If you are need of anything contact any organization and we will assure you are helped,” they said, noting they have stockpiled food and other necessities.”Do not feel that you are alone (and) that there is no assistance.”


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1 thought on “‘No one was listening’: Berens River members take action over COVID-19 fears

  1. while
    i think the bar should be closed i also think we should have some
    compassion for the band members with addictions. provide only liquor
    delivery for now. some are going to drink in the cold outside and freeze
    to death. colonialism brought alcohol as a weapon and it worked for the
    most part, now some have problems, but that doesn’t mean they are worth
    less than others. of course keep them isolated
    from the population on reserves but lets try to provide a safe place
    for them. they are not just going to stop. i don’t know, its a tough
    situation. isn’t there a run down house that can be converted for now
    where they can isolate together? i hate to think of them being put on
    the street. offer some to go to treatment to thin out the crowd..etc all
    i know is we cannot turn on our own. we have enough against us.
    get me wrong, i applaud the women trying to protect their families but
    we must always remember where alcoholism came from. i helped my uncle
    get all the groceries he needs but made sure he had some cash so he
    could phone for his beer so he didn’t need to go out anywhere, i also
    don’t think families should have to be forced to live with drinkers all
    the time which is why maybe revamp an old house
    or something where they can isolate together. these are all someones
    uncles, aunties, cuz, nephews..etc some can’t stop, its a disease. its
    tough and requires sensitive leadership skills to deal with, which
    unfortunately some of our communities don’t have. and is also ironic
    since in my area most of the leadership use to live this exact same way.
    lets just try to be compassionate. colonial governments love it when we
    turn on each other no matter what the topic. be safe. peace

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