First Nations in Ontario’s northwest restrict travel, some in lockdown over Omicron concerns

January 1, 2022
At least 2 remote First Nations in Ontario implement travel restrictions amid Omicron variant concerns

First Nations in northwestern Ontario are locking down as the Omicron variant and a rise of COVID-19 cases begin to pose a threat to dozens of northern communities.

The regional lockdown was implemented Thursday after 33 First Nation chiefs passed a resolution aimed at restricting travel in and out of communities.

The resolution also looks to ramp up support and co-ordination among various partners to aid in pandemic responses, and preserve the already limited resources in some communities.

“A small remote First Nations community, when they have … an outbreak of COVID at the community level can really cripple a community in terms of their day-to-day operations,” said Dr. Lloyd Douglas, the top public health physician for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA).

Douglas told CBC News in an interview that he called the general meeting with the chiefs of each community in the SLFNHA catchment area after the agency began to see the “writing on the wall,” as positive cases started popping up over the last several days.

Dr. Lloyd Douglas, The public health physician and incident commander for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority COVID-19 response team, said that as of Thursday, there were about 70 cases confirmed over six First Nations (Source: Northern Ontario School of Medicine)

Douglas said that as of Thursday, there were about 70 cases confirmed over six First Nations.

The lockdown means restrictions on indoor gatherings and “serious” non-essential travel restrictions, with each community monitoring its borders closely, according to Douglas.

The chiefs in assembly directed SLFNHA to take a lead role in a regional pandemic response, to avoid further strain on any of the northern First Nation should an outbreak occur. The health authority will also provide guidance to all 33 communities on the length of the lockdown.

Douglas describes the decision of the assembly as “pulling the breaks” and will reassess in the next two weeks.

Lockdown strengthens restrictions in place

For some communities that already implemented restrictions earlier this month, the lockdown won’t change much.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug was the first to restrict travel, on Dec. 13. Community members were allowed to travel to smaller communities in the area, like Sioux Lookout, Dryden and Kenora. But non-essential travel further than that, for example, to larger urban centres like Winnipeg or Thunder Bay, has already been restricted.

Chief Donny Morris told CBC News the regional response will only “strengthen” current restrictions.

“Our doctors will discuss all patients with our membership and they’ll decide who will be able to go out that is an urgent medical requirement. And right now, anybody just for the sake of travelling is not allowed to travel,” he told CBC News in an interview.

“This is real, this is coming and we’ve got to have whatever means of preparing our community to prevent this virus from coming in.”

Bearskin Lake First Nation in emergency state

The regional lockdown comes as Bearskin Lake First Nation, more than 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, sees a surge of COVID-19 cases with a test positivity rate of over 50 per cent over two days.

The situation in Bearskin First Nation has added strain on it’s local nursing station, leadership and even day-to-day operations of the community. Douglas said the strain there and in other communities is what they’re trying to avoid moving forward.

A state of emergency was declared Wednesday in Bearskin Lake First Nation, where fewer than 400 people live on reserve, more than 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

“We have to get additional resources from outside of the community into these First Nations communities, and that in and of itself is extremely stressful, extremely challenging,” said Douglas.

“We don’t want to see our communities crippled throughout this process, and when we look across the province, other agencies, ministries in terms of the resources, especially health, human resources, everyone is stretched very, very thin at this point in time.”

Calls for support

The resolution passed Thursday calls on Tribal Councils, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre (SLMHC), health units, airlines that service the northern First Nations, and various agencies and provincial and federal governments for co-ordination and support.

NAN, a political organization representing 49 northern First Nations in Ontario, is also calling on both governments to provide an urgent response to support leaders across NAN territory.

“Many communities are losing their ability to care for their members and have exhausted their limited resources,” reads a NAN media release Thursday.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Derek Fox calls the sudden increases in positive cases across the region ‘very alarming and requires an urgent response.’ (Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

“This includes basic needs like drinking water and food deliveries for those in isolation, wood and fuel for heat, and [preventive] measures to alleviate overcrowding and housing shortages that will help contain the spread of infection.”

As of Thursday, NAN was reporting 89 active cases in nine of its communities, which are not all served by SLFNHA. The communities include Fort Albany, Ginoogaming, Moose Factory, Sandy Lake, Poplar Hill, Lac Seul, Bearskin Lake, Kashechewan and Marten Falls.

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