Northern Ontario communities doing what they can to keep COVID-19 out

If you’re heading to a community in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation there’s a good chance you have to take a plane to get there.

And that, according to the minister of Indigenous Services, makes them more vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

“We saw this during H1N1, we saw this during SARS, we’ve learned from those events,” said Marc Miller. “But the reality remains that Indigenous people in Canada experience more overcrowding, a higher burden of chronic disease and some live in highly remote and isolated parts of this country.”

NAN represents 49 communities in northern Ontario – a majority are fly-in.

Wasaya Airways is one of the airlines that services many of them.

It’s partially owned by 12 fly-in First Nations and operate 60 passenger flights daily to 25 destinations.

The planes ship tonnes of freight, and millions of litres of fuel to the north.

It’s also the only airline Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) will allow into the community right now.

“We’re asking non-members, don’t come here, stay away and our band members are just told to make arrangements on Wasaya,” said Chief Donny Morris. “Essential people are told to utilize Wasaya Airways too like the police, doctors, professionals, still those things are open for them.”

Morris said band members are being asked not to travel except for medical emergencies.

“With our members who come home, for example myself I’m in isolation as I came home, so I got to isolate myself for 14 days,” he said.

Wasaya said it’s following directives from the First Nations that it services.

“For passengers moving in and out of the communities we strictly want people moving through the scheduled services or charters that are set up by chief and council so that the chief and council of all communities are aware of who’s coming and going and they can make their decisions if they want to adjust it at all,” said Donnie Macklin, vice president of cargo operations at Wasaya.

Macklin said their counter agents and pilots are screening all passengers and staff for COVID-19 symptoms.

One passenger was turned away from a flight recently.

“If they get turned away we’re looking for 14 days of isolation or they come back with a doctor’s note saying it’s some other kind of condition outside of COVID that allows them to travel,” he said. “He had a cough and went back to the hostel. Returned the next day with a medical note and was allowed to board and fly to destination.”
Macklin said if someone is turned away, the airline is holding a credit with no charges attached so they can get home after the 14 day isolation period.

While there have been no cases of COVID-19 in any remote First Nation in NAN territory, Thunder Bay, the central hub in the area, has four confirmed cases as of this posting.

Morris said they’re preparing for the virus to get closer.

“As council we’re saying okay, if it should hit Kenora, Dryden or Sioux Lookout that’s going to be an automatic shutdown, lockdown, nobody comes, nobody goes,” he said. “Because we’re in a remote community and we just don’t have the facility.”

Morris said on top of flight restrictions, the community is planning 24-hour lockdown drills to help prepare community members in the event the new coronavirus reaches them.

Video Journalist / Thunder Bay

Willow is an Oji-Cree Anishinabe from Sandy Lake First Nation. Her background is in print journalism and she studied multimedia before entering broadcast news . She is passionate about the stories of the Anishinabe in northwestern Ontario, particularly in the remote north.