Bearskin Lakes First Nation boss Lefty Kamenawatamin sits in front of his computer for a final interview about the eruption that has overwhelmed his community in the far north of Ontario for nearly three weeks.
There is a bit of glare on the camera, right in his face, so he gets up with some newspaper and moves away from the screen to adjust the light.
“Let me do a little studio,” he laughed.
Kamenawatamin knows what journalists need for the shot. He has been taking their calls almost every day for the past few weeks while recovering from COVID-19 in his home. He is one of more than 220 people tested positive since the eruption began in the fly-in community of about 400 people, located 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
The problem solved, Kamenawatamin sits back. A landline phone rings in the answering machine. A cell phone buzzes nearby.
He leans into the camera and thinks back to the first few days of the outbreak: those who answered their calls for help and who made them wait.
Called for help
Right from the start, on December 27, key employees tested positive for the virus – members of the band council, pandemic team and other frontline staff, including people who supply fuel and wood to keep buildings heated, ensure safety and run COVID -19 tests.
“And the numbers kept adding and adding and adding positive cases,” the boss said.
Babies, the elderly, and frontline workers all tested positive, leaving only a handful of workers to care for and provide essential items for the hundreds who were forced to insulate in their homes.
The remote community went into a complete lockdown, and then a state of emergency was declared on December 29th.
Kamenawatamin heard that a few houses with small children were without electricity and did not have enough firewood to last the night with temperatures dropping to below -30 C. He went on the local radio station, an important source of communication for many communities in the country. Far North, and asked any front-line staff who had tested negative to hurry up and help.
The call for help was heard by some in Muskrat Dam, a neighboring community about 100 miles away from Bearskin Lake. A few people drove over to the winter road that night and started chopping wood, the chief said.
“That was the kind of help I wanted when I declared an emergency.”
Surrounding communities are stepping up to help
The first nation has been overwhelmed with support from surrounding communities, Kamenawatamin said.
Charter flights arrived from First Nations and cities in northern Ontario on an hourly basis, filled with food, care packages and other important items such as diapers, sanitary ware and traditional medicine. Local communities a little closer to sent supplies and volunteers via winter roads and even snowmobiling.
“They came in, and,” Kamenawatamin came back, clearly holding back the tears before continuing after a long pause, “the compassion, you know, for their own expense, for their own safety … I was overwhelmed.”
Asked if Bearskin Lake could have done without the help of other First Nations, Kamenawatamin said, “probably not.”
It is a feeling shared by many in society.
Disappointment with the government, military reaction
Terrilyn Wemigwans, whose three-year-old daughter Callie tested positive for COVID-19, said it was the surrounding communities that gave them hope.
As for the government and the military, Wemigwans said it seemed like “they do not want to get here.”
On January 3, when the number of cases continued to grow and a test positivity of over 50 percent, Kamenawatamin asked for military assistance.
SE | Community members respond to the government’s response:
The boss expressed his frustration over what he considered a slow and inadequate response.
“I did not want help next month or next week. It was an emergency statement,” he said, adding that he did not understand why there was so much bureaucracy and so many assessments that had to be made to get what he said. . needed.
Declaring the state of emergency, the chief said he posted that Bearskin Lake needed someone to come in and set up a command center to monitor the response until the situation reached a point where First Nation was able to help itself.
Instead, it took three days before First Nation was informed of funding from Indigenous Services Canada, which approved $ 1.1 million throughout the first week of January. It took almost two weeks after the emergency declaration for the Canadian forces to send three Canadian rangers from the headquarters in Borden, Ont., To support the community.
The federal government said seven rangers were activated to help, but four of those military reservists were local and already affected by the eruption. Two of them were exhausted after spending weeks volunteering at the front line, and two had not arrived by Wednesday, according to Kamenawatamin, who said they may still be in isolation or supporting their own families.
An additional “leadership team” of three Canadian armed forces was sent to Bearskin Lake on Thursday, according to a tweet from Secretary of Defense Anita Anand.
The government in daily contact with society, says Hajdu
The answer was far from what Kamenawatamin said was expected and necessary. Yet after three weeks, there is still a fundamental disruption between how Bearskin Lake’s management and officials understand the effort.
On Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said “there was no delay in responding to society’s growing requests for support.”
Hajdu said government officials were in daily, sometimes twice-daily calls with the Bearskin Lake management to make sure they had everything they needed. She expressed her own frustration over criticism of the ministry’s handling of the outbreak.
“When I hear that communities are still struggling with that sense of being supported, it obviously makes me want to understand how we can better meet their needs and how we can better open up lines of communication,” she said.
Hajdu added that her staff is now working on streamlining processes for indigenous communities to ask for help, at the request of Manitoba First Nations, but she referred the issue of speeding up First Nations requests for military assistance to the Secretary of Defense, who was not available for a interview with CBC News.
Bearskin Lake publicly asked for military support on the morning of January 3, but Ontario’s Attorney General first filed the request for federal assistance on the evening of January 6. A statement from Solicitor General did not say why it took four full days to send that letter to Ottawa.
Time to heal
There is hope to be found these days, Kamenawatamin said. No lives have been lost due to COVID-19 since December, which he attributes in part to a high adult vaccination rate of over 80 percent. The number of active cases has dropped markedly since the peak of the outbreak.
Now the boss says it’s time to start rebuilding and healing as a community.
“We just want to get back to some normality,” he said.
But society is exhausted, Kamenawatamin said, and frontline workers are burnt out. Even as they try to recover, efforts must remain vigilant against other disasters – like a chimney fire on Wednesday that threatened to occupy a young family’s house, the other in as many weeks.
As the leader of a remote First Nation with limited infrastructure and resources, Kamenawatamin has a clear message for others in Ontario’s Far North: Be prepared and ready.