On March 11, the World Health Oganization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. APTN News is reporting from across the country on the viral outbreak and how it is impacting Indigenous communities. For more information click here: COVID-19
Lindsay Richardson, Todd Lamirande, Tina House, Chris MacIntyre
Communities, governments and public health officials are buckling down as COVID-19 preparation grips the country.
Schools, bars, restaurants and much more are shuttered on St. Patrick’s Day as the reality of life in a pandemic sinks in.
Indigenous communities in Quebec are taking extra steps to protect their territories.
Schools are closed and playgrounds empty in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, just south of Montreal. Hospitals are restricting access while arenas, daycares, bars and bingo halls are closed until further notice.
Kahnawake ironworkers returning from the United States are also being asked to self-isolate.
As of 3 p.m. ET on Tuesday, there were 74 COVID-19 cases in the province, according to Santé Quebec.
Communities in Quebec’s far north are preparing as well. Several people from the Nunavik region are being observed after possible exposure.
The Innu community of Ekuanitshit (also known as Mingan or Mingan-Ekuanitshit) and the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci are discouraging nonessential traffic through their territories.
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec/Labrador (AFNQL), warned that “remoteness, overcrowding of living environments, and [the] precarious state of health” make First Nations and Inuit “particularly vulnerable in a pandemic context.”
Elders in the Algonquin community of Kitcisakik are gathering cedar and preparing traditional medicine bundles.
The province of Quebec is appealing for blood donations and is promising to triple the number of staffers staffing its COVID-19 information line.
Things are not much different in Ontario, where the province declared a state of emergency earlier on Tuesday.
And, for the second straight day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau briefed the nation from the lawn at Rideau Cottage, where he remains in self-isolation after his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12.
Trudeau acknowledged Indigenous communities are more vulnerable to the virus but, again, details were scarce.
“We know that there is a higher degree of vulnerability,” Trudeau said in response to a question from APTN News.
“There are already vulnerabilities because of difficult conditions in so many of those communities. That is why we are taking extra measures to ensure that Indigenous people across this country remain safe.”
It’s unclear what those “extra measures” are. The COVID-19 cabinet committee reiterated the point but didn’t offer more details.
“Obviously, there are communities that present, in this case Indigenous communities, present a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and a higher risk for serious outcomes,” said Minister of Health Patty Hajdu.
“So I think the prime minister is right to say Indigenous communities require extra attention, extra support to make sure their members are protected, and that they have the same level of health care should we see an outbreak in an Indigenous community.”
The committee suggested they support the actions of some Indigenous communities and organizations to declare their own states of emergency.
“We all need to be acting and taking the right measures in our own communities,” said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“And that very much includes Indigenous communities. At the same time, the federal government is here to lead and to provide the necessary resources. And we’re going to do that.”
Freeland also said Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, attended the committee meeting prior to the briefing, though he was not at the briefing.
Miller is an “alternate” member of the committee. Freeland suggested he may attend a briefing later this week to announce Indigenous-specific measures.
Moving west, licensed daycares and preschools in Manitoba are to close by the end of the day Friday. The province’s six casinos are to close on Wednesday.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also announced a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon.
Similar to Ontario, public recreation facilities, casinos, bingo halls, bars, museums and art galleries will close if their doors if they haven’t already.
Gatherings of more than 50 people – including weddings and funerals – must be cancelled, and worship services and conferences also fall under the 50-person rule.
In British Columbia, government officials held a press conference to address concerns about American tourists crossing the border into Canada.
“The vast majority of our cases have been imported cases and we now recognize that there are no safe places around the world,” said B.C. Health Officer Bonnie Henry.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the lineups at the Peace Arch Border Crossing have slowed down considerably but there are still Washington state residents coming into Canada.
For now, the border between the U.S. and Canada remains open – despite the fact that over 900 people in Washington state have tested positive for COVID-19.
There is also a rising death toll of over 50 people.
The B.C. government has very serious concerns over Washington state residents visiting the province during this pandemic.
“We remain concerned that access from visitors from the United States continues to be allowed,” said Minister of Health Adrian Dix.
Cheryl Cassimer of the First Nations Leadership Council warned that First Nations are at greater risk.
“The statistics around our health are not that great. Any exposure of any kind, whether it be Elders or those that are battling kind of disease, it puts them at greater risk.”
It’s not clear whether the federal government plans to close the border to Americans.
But Premier John Horgan encouraged Washingtonians to stay home if they need to self-isolate: “Better to do it in your own home without any impact on the healthcare system, whether it’s in the American one or the Canadian one.”
In Yukon, customers are struggling to find basic supplies as shelves that sit full at any given time are bare.
“We’re seeing a lot of things go way faster than we normally would for sure,” said Matt McCarthy, manager of a Whitehorse supermarket.
Like many stores across the Canada, keeping toilet paper and hand sanitizer stocked has proven difficult.
“We put in a pretty big order last week and it came in and all the toilet paper was gone in four days. And then we ordered a little bit this week and some of it’s not coming but we’ll get a little bit. We actually just put out a case of hand sanitizer out on the front till and it’s gone,” said McCarthy.
“That was probably 20 minutes ago, so things are going quick.”
This despite having no confirmed cases as of publishing time.
“COVID is now in all of the provinces and only our three territories have yet to announce a first case of COVID-19,” said Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer. “But let’s be clear, this is coming to Yukon and could well be here without us knowing.”
As events continue to get cancelled in the city, Yukoners have started to prepare for the situation to get even worse, which has led to people buying in large amounts.
“My partner identified that we needed to stock up on a few things and we’re out of sugar, and downtown there was no sugar left available so here I am,” said Whitehorse resident Justin Lemphers.
“We’re mostly thinking about friends and family who might not have as much capacity to look out for themselves, or people who are out there in the community, and what might we be able to do to help out in those situations.”
While the risk is low, the advice to residents is the same as elsewhere: practice regular hand washing, keep social distancing, and stay home if feeling unwell.
You can access all of APTN‘s COVID-19 coverage here.
-With files from The Canadian Press