The chief of a COVID-stricken First Nation community in Northwestern Ontario said Wednesday he is “disappointed” with the federal government’s response to the community’s 10-day-old request for military help, even as a Canadian Armed Forces spokesperson was telling reporters that Bearskin Lake First Nation leaders have been “happy” with the military response.
In the meantime, the federal government says its response to an outbreak of COVID-19 at Bearskin Lake First Nation is shifting from emergency mode to recovery support as the number of residents in isolation drops. Indigenous Services Canada said that, as of late Tuesday, there there are now 65 residents from the northern Ontario community in isolation, down from numbers earlier this week that had more than half of the 400 or so residents of the community in isolation.
On Dec. 28, as case counts were rising — forcing many in the community to self-isolate even if they had not been infected — the First Nation declared a state of emergency and, on Jan. 3, with most of the community literally locked in their homes to avoid further spread, the community asked for as many as 40 military personnel to help with basic tasks such as chopping and hauling firewood — almost all the homes at Bearskin Lake rely on wood stoves for heat — as well as delivering food, water, and medicine to self-isolating families.
The provincial government formally passed on the request for help at Bearskin Lake on Jan. 6 and, two days later, three Army Rangers were dispatched from CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont., to assess the community’s needs. Those Rangers did not stay in the community but returned to their base.
After that assessment — a copy of which has not been released despite a request from Global News — the federal government decided on Sunday to activate more Army Rangers to help the community but rather than send 40 as requested, the federal government activated only a handful, most of which already live in the community and had been recovering from COVID-19 themselves.
Bearskin Lake First Nation Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said Wednesday he had been told that seven Army Rangers were to be deployed but only three Rangers had arrived in the community. Kamenawatamin said he was told that four additional Rangers would be deployed from the group of Rangers that live in his community but Kamenawatamin said that has not happened and so, at day’s end Wednesday, a total of five Canadian Rangers have been deployed to Bearskin Lake First Nation, not the promised seven — and not the asked-for 40.
“We are disappointed with Canada’s response,” said Kamenawatamin, who, after being diagnosed COVID-positive himself on Saturday, is now recovering. “Our community was anxiously waiting for help, and we were comforted by the thought that Canada would step in to provide us with much needed physical and moral support. In the end, however, this help has been minimal.”
The statement from the First Nation issued Wednesday afternoon said, “This situation and the promises made by Canada to Bearskin Lake First Nation only serve as another example of a long history of dishonesty and neglect from Canadian governments.”
And yet, the message reaching the military in Ottawa was substantially different.
“In our communications with the community, leaders have told us they are happy with the support they are receiving from the CAF,” Maj. Sonia Dumouchel Connock, a spokesperson for the Canadian Forces’ Ontario regional task force, said in a statement emailed to Global News late Tuesday night. “The support effort has thus shifted from emergency response to recovery support.”
Connock said the military will continue working with the community and assess whether circumstances change and noted that no other First Nation had requested military assistance.
Defence Minister Anita Anand tweeted Wednesday that she had talked to the Canadian Rangers on the ground at Bearskin Lake.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also asked about the situation during a press conference on Wednesday and said the government has been “extremely present” in the community.
“We are pleased to see the situation turning a corner and looking like it’s getting better, but we will continue to be there in that community and in communities around the country as necessary,” he said.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu has said the government is also paying the costs to deploy dozens of volunteers and health-care workers from nearby communities, at a cost of roughly $1.2 million so far.
So far, no member of the community has become seriously ill or required medical evacuation, likely the result of a strong vaccination program which saw about 84 per cent of the community fully vaccinated, many with boosters.
“Definitely. The situation would have been could have been much worse if it weren’t for the high vaccination coverage rates in the community,” said Dr. Lloyd Douglas of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, which serves several First Nations in the region, including Bearskin Lake First Nation.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the adjacent riding of Timmins—James Bay, said on Tuesday the decision not to offer the Canadian Forces members requested by the community demonstrates the government’s “indifference” to the health of Indigenous Canadians.
“I think what this government is doing here is sending a message not just to Bearskin Lake, but to all the other First Nation communities who are facing Omicron to say, ‘Don’t bother calling. You’re on your own,’” Angus told Global News on Tuesday.
He pointed specifically to a Twitter post by Defence Minister Anita Anand showing the Canadian Forces members who have been deployed to help out in COVID-19 vaccine clinics in Quebec amid rising cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“You’re telling the people of Bearskin Lake: ‘Sorry — too bad, so sad, you get nothing.’”
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