OTTAWA — Residents of a First Nation in northern Ontario threatened by spring flooding are facing more complex and some fear-inducing options for escape this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The almost 2,000 residents of Kashechewan First Nation have had to flee their community every year since 2012 due to flooding, removed to larger centres such as Timmins and Thunder Bay.
But this year, many residents are worried about catching the novel coronavirus or bringing it back into their community.
That's why about 1,200 people have instead decided to wait out the flood season on the land, with some setting up camps in their traditional territories and others planning to camp in an area known as Site 5, about 30 kilometres from the First Nation, where the community is eventually supposed to be moved.
The remaining 800-odd residents are staying put, hoping the waters don't rise too high this year and force them to leave.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the flood plan for Kashechewan this year is more complex due to the additional risk the pandemic places on the First Nation's residents.
"COVID-19 in any community has complexified any sort of movement and with a community like Kashechewan that has had this preventative relocation and evacuation for the last few years, COVID-19 has intensely complexified some of the planning," Miller said in a recent interview.
"You can imagine, with people very worried and fearful about their health, you have to layer the epidemic plan on top of a potential evacuation plan."
The federal government is providing $2 million to support those who will relocate to camps, ensuring they have adequate resources and supplies, including medical and sanitary resources.
To protect the safety of those staying in Kashechewan, water levels are being measured closely with daily fly-overs while residents remain on higher ground.
Miller said these plans reflect the desires of the residents.
However, the chief and council of Kashechewan sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early March, asking for military engineers to help construct an evacuation camp at Site 5, complete with enough tents and supplies for all 2,000 residents.
"...(I)ce break up on the Albany River is approaching fast. We expect it to be in early May. That gives us only few weeks to plan and execute this project," part of the letter reads.
"Being on the land, cut off from distractions and most media, may prove to be helpful to our youth, learning survivor (skills) and living off the land."
Interview requests to Chief Leo Friday Wednesday were not returned.
The department of National Defence confirmed to APTN News last month it was in discussions with the community about options for the proposed evacuation camp. But those never materialized.
Miller suggested this is because not everyone in the community wanted to go to such a camp.
"There are members who have moved to Site 5, but perhaps not in the numbers that were initially contemplated would go based on the letter that chief and council sent to the prime minister six or seven weeks ago."
But NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the riding encompassing Kashechewan, says he believes government was too slow to respond to the First Nation's request, and many people decided to head out on their own to their traditional camps rather than wait for Ottawa.
He's concerned about what will happen to those who are waiting in the flood-prone community, as the nearby waters have already begun to rise.
"What happens if the flood waters rise quickly and there's still 800-some people in the community? Where do they go? That's still not clear."
Several of the surrounding Ontario municipalities that usually host First Nations residents fleeing floods and fires have said they can't take evacuees this year, including Thunder Bay and Kapuskasing. Others have raised concerns about a lack of resources and personnel to handle an influx of evacuees, due to facility closures and layoffs caused by the pandemic.
Angus says this, coupled with the fears among Kashechewan residents of being relocated to cities with outbreaks of COVID-19, has led to deep concerns about where those who are not able to camp in tents for the flood season will go.
"We've asked for them to look at other options, maybe a military site, places where, if we had to evacuate them, we could do so safely and maintain the distancing that is necessary, because everybody knows in the Treaty 9 region, if COVID gets into one of the communities, it will have a devastating impact," Angus said.
Miller said sites have been identified in nearby towns and cities if floods force the remaining residents to leave and that COVID-19 distancing protocols will be followed.
"Of all the evolving floodings and potentials for the wildfire season, this is the one that is of intense preoccupation for me and my team. But I'm confident the plans that we've put into place are the best ones, given the circumstances."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press