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Local First Nations focus on their most vulnerable, consider closing to non-residents

Batchewana, Garden River deliver programming, services to membership while stripped down to essential services
Garden River First Nation has established a colour-coded sign system for residents as part of its COVID-19 Neighbourhood Watch program. Facebook photo

Sault Ste. Marie’s two neighbouring First Nations may have scaled back its day-to-day operations to essential service only, but leadership says that every effort is being taken to flatten the curve during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Garden River First Nation has assembled its own COVID-19 task force - consisting of community safety portfolio holders and some managers in essential services departments - in order to stay on top of the latest information on the pandemic as it develops. 

Garden River First Nation Chief Andy Rickard says that essential services staff were brought together about two weeks ago in order to develop a pandemic plan for the community.  

“We understand too the unknown and the uncertainty that exists out there, so we want to make sure that we’re being proactive and ensuring that we’re getting the information out to the community that we’re doing our due diligence,” said Garden River First Nation Chief Andy Rickard. 

Garden River First Nation Education Unit has continued its healthy breakfast program for students, while the childcare department provides warm meals to people in need - with limited contact. 

Sign of the times in Garden River

The First Nation has also implemented the COVID-19 Neighbourhood Watch system, where citizens can place colour-coded signs on their homes to indicate essential needs like food or water, and to signal self-isolation or a positive case of COVID-19. 

Rickard says that the system - which isn't intended to replace communication with essential service providers, but to serve as a backup measure - also helps essential service workers, who are minimizing contact by avoiding going into homes and using drop-off instead.      

“We know that a lot of people are living below the poverty line, and we have a lot of people that are elderly. We have a lot of people that are living alone. We have a lot of people that have pre-existing health conditions as well,” said Rickard. “In light of this pandemic, we wanted to ensure that we’re also helping them - check up on them and ensuring that they get some of these things that they need.”

Stay at home, and check on your loved ones: Batchewana First Nation 

Meanwhile, Batchewana First Nation is delivering its essential services to three of its communities - Rankin, Goulais and Obadjiiwan - and has recently opened food banks and purchased enough supplies for 600 community members who live on the First Nation’s smaller parcels of land, while working with the Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre to assist Batchewana's off-reserve membership. 

The First Nation has supplied its elder population with 200 care packages, which includes a red sign for elders to place on their homes in order to indicate that help is needed. 

It’s also made 200 family kits - containing food, gift cards and other essentials - for families that rely upon the First Nation’s child nutrition program. 

“We can be watching that, and we check on our elders daily,” said Sayers, elaborating on efforts to assist elders. “We’re asking for other people to watch for those red signs, and please check in on your loved ones.”

“Call them, email them, drive by. We have emergency supports with our health centre - we can make accommodation to check on people if need be. But those red signs are important for us, to be able to provide supports to our people.”

No matter what community citizens live in, Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers says messaging from leadership has been consistent: Stay home. 

“We are a social people, we’re communal people, and it’s really difficult for us to maintain this social distancing,” said Sayers. “But we’re continually telling our people, only travel when you absolutely have to outside of your home. Stay inside your home, stay in the community. Only go when you need to go, [and] go by yourself.”

“Yes, it is misaligned with our overall perspective around our family dynamics and how we engage our families, however, we really need to be conscious of how this COVID-19 spreads, and we ask them to make that concession and just stay home.” 

Border closures not being ruled out, leaders say 

Leadership in both Batchewana and Garden River are aware of the next step that several First Nations across the country are taking in trying to shut the door on COVID-19 - an all-out border closure and ban on non-residents. 

Both Wahnapitae First Nation and Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, both located just outside of Sudbury, have closed its borders to non-residents by establishing checkpoints at its access roads. 

Sayers says a similar closure could be possible, but only if that decision is in the best interest of community members. 

“All of our people will be treated similarly in all of our villages, and we will work with the other neighbouring authorities to make sure that we’re consistent, and we’re doing our processes in a way that’s communicated well and everybody’s understanding what we’re doing, and how we’re going to do that,” said Sayers, when asked if a closure of the First Nation’s communities is on the table. “There are actually funds available through Canada to help with those types of measures if we determine we need to shut down or lock down our communities.”

“But as of yet, our council hasn’t taken that step. But of course, everything’s open for discussion.”

It’s a different situation for Garden River, which has a number of access roads going into the community from both Highway 17A and Highway 17B. 

“ that looks is something that we...if we ever get to that point, we need to iron out how that looks to our community, because again, we have a number of different ways into the community along the highway, so we just need to ensure that we have the manpower to do that, that we have the support of the community to throw that behind us, and we need to figure out how that looks in terms of screening, right?” said Rickard. “There’s a number of people that are from our community that live in town, and they have family here. So what does that mean for them, right? What does that mean to the people that are not from our community, but work here in the community? How does that work? So I think we have to consider, obviously, all those things in relation to if we are going to go to that plan.” 

“That’s something that’s totally on the table, although we’re just kind of in the preliminary stages of tossing around ideas, and obviously if we do make that call that it’s going to be the right one for the community, that the community can be behind as well.”