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COVID-19 reopening may bring more blockades of roads and highways that are gateways to fearful First Nations communities

Residents, including Chief Wilfred King, far right, stand at a checkpoint restricting access to their community to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in their remote First Nations community of Gull Bay, Ontario, Canada April 27, 2020.
Residents, including Chief Wilfred King, far right, stand at a checkpoint restricting access to their community to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in their remote First Nations community of Gull Bay, Ontario, Canada April 27, 2020.

Canada’s slow re-emergence from COVID-19 closures may bring tighter restrictions and blockades by First Nations over the roads, highways and small airports that are the gateways to reserves in a bid to control coronavirus spread to vulnerable communities.

“These lockdowns and checkpoints are the major reason why our rates are low,” Regional Chief of Ontario, RoseAnne Archibald, said of the province’s First Nations community.

“The closer you are together the more the virus spreads, so that becomes a growing concern for First Nations, especially with the coming second wave. We know there will be a second wave.”

Fear over COVID-19’s spread through First Nations communities — which have lower health and housing resources but higher incidences of underlying health concerns — brought roadblocks, “dissuasion points” and security checkpoints to many.

The actions are not renegade, local responses, but recommended by provincial and national First Nations organization.

“Our first priority is the health and safety of First Nations families and communities,” Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde said.

“First Nations are the most vulnerable communities in the country and, as such, prevention efforts are crucial during this pandemic. The AFN supports First Nations in exercising their jurisdiction and making their own decisions for the safety and well-being of their peoples and communities.”

Some security borders have caused anger and court intervention while others proceed with little apparent agitation or attention.

In northern Manitoba, members of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation have blocked a highway for more than a week to stop workers arriving at a hydro construction project, fearing they could carry the coronavirus with them. The community is about 725 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Anytime you open up society and people begin to move, then the virus begins to move

After being served with a court injunction to clear the road by the RCMP, supporters tore it up.

In B.C., most of the coastal communities maintain road checks, including the Nuxalk Nation, 430 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. Since March, non-essential travellers there are deemed “trespassers” and the community remains on “full lockdown,” public notices say.

In Quebec, Mohawks of Kanesatake set up roadblocks — which they called “dissuasion points” — at the entrance to Oka provincial park to dissuade visitors, as Quebec loosens its restrictions. Park trails lead into Kanesatake.

“It is not to be mean or anything. As a matter of fact, I felt really bad telling a young mother and her two kids, please, understand, please go back home,” Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said.

“If you look at what decimated First Nations populations in the Americas, it was a virus: small pox rubella tuberculosis Spanish flu,” he said. “We were almost extinguished just by a virus.”

The M’Chigeeng First Nation on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island has had a non-essential travel ban for a month now, including on two public highways, creating a flashpoint with neighbouring residents and sparking inflammatory and racist social media posts.

Al MacNevin, mayor of the neighbouring municipality, asked the provincial government and the Ontario Provincial Police to ensure Highway 540 and 551 remain open, to no avail. He said the roadblocks can add as much as 45 minutes to a journey and people get lost when trying to detour.

“Most people during this pandemic are already on the edge from being isolated most of the time. It is a stressful situation,” MacNevin said Sunday.

“We’re afraid that people at those checkpoints are mostly volunteers and may or may not have the training to keep people calm, and if people are angry you could run into a situation where somebody would become aggressive and we worry about the safety of both people at the checkpoint as well as the traveller.”

Most people during this pandemic are already on the edge from being isolated most of the time. It is a stressful situation

First Nation and local municipal leaders have been meeting to ease tension. Meanwhile, the OPP continue to warn the public of a “travel advisory” and recommend alternate routes.

By contrast, Nipissing First Nation, along the northern shore of Lake Nipissing about 30 kilometres west of North Bay, is starting its own reopening. The community would be difficult to close because the Trans-Canada Highways passes through it, and Nipissing leaders focused on hygiene over isolation.

In Ontario, the majority of First Nations communities have some form of border control, from signs to roadblocks.

Archibald calls it “a shield of protection.”

It is easier in some places than others. Many communities are remote and only accessible by air. Others neighbour cities.

The isolation of remote communities helps keep transmission low, but when it comes, its impact is harder to fight.

When a resident of Eabametoong First Nation returned home to their community, which is 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay and accessible only by plane or boat, and then tested positive for COVID-19 in April, it was difficult to get a medical field tent and other protective equipment to the community.

The First Nations in Ontario with the most cases, however, are near large population centres: Six Nations, the largest reserve in Canada, is about 20 kilometres from Brantford and 30 kilometres from Hamilton; Walpole Island, across the St. Clair River from the United States, is about 120 kilometres from both Windsor and Detroit.

Both have had 12 cases.

The provincial re-opening plans cause more alarm than relief.

“Anytime you open up society and people begin to move, then the virus begins to move,” said Archibald. “Many of them are in lockdown and most of those who had checkpoints before the opening up, still have those checkpoints.”

Bellegarde said First Nations must be a part of provincial planning as pandemic restrictions shift.

“Provincial governments must consider the risks to rural and remote communities when making decisions about the re-opening of the province to ensure the needs and priorities of First Nations are heard, understood and addressed,” he said.

“First Nations should be involved at any decision-making tables that impact their nations, their families, and their rights.”

Indigenous Services Canada report that, as of Friday, there had been 209 confirmed COVID-19 cases on First Nations reserves, resulting in 18 hospitalizations and four deaths.

Saskatchewan accounts for 49 of those, Ontario 46, B.C. 41, Alberta 38, and Quebec 35.

While roadblocks are effective, said Archibald, they are also expensive. She is asking the federal government to provide funding for reserves.

With files from the Montreal Gazette

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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