A number of First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario have partnered together to call for immediate support from the provincial and federal governments to prevent large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks in the north.

Sioux Lookout area Chiefs passed the resolution earlier this month after the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority hosted a Special Emergency Chiefs Meeting to discuss the government’s response to COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities, including in Bearskin Lake.

"Bearskin Lake is in crisis and their calls for help are being ignored by the provincial government,” said Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who also serves as the NDP’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation critic.

Bearskin Lake declared a State of Emergency on December 29, with the majority of households under isolation measures. The federal government announced they would be bringing in members of the Canadian Armed Forces on January 10 to assist with food, supply and wood deliveries.

As of January 17, only 5 Rangers had been deployed to the community, and Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said he was disappointed with the response.

“With half the community sick or isolating, the limited health resources available in the community are stretched to the breaking point. Basic needs are going unmet, like access to food or wood to heat homes. Families are worried for their loved ones and the emergency needs of the community are not being met,” added Mamakwa.

Bearskin Lake First Nation is now dealing with a devastating COVID-19 infection rate of over 45 per cent, and SLFNHA says many other remote, isolated and northern communities are bracing for similar situations to take place in their areas.

On January 5, SLFNHA had reported that COVID-19 cases were reported in 13 of their member communities. As of January 17, SLFNHA is reporting a total of 115 active COVID-19 cases across their catchment area.

“The situation in Bearskin Lake clearly demonstrates the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 for First Nations” states SLFNHA Public Health Physician, Dr. Lloyd Douglas.

“The impacts are devastating to First Nations communities who face major infrastructure shortages, boil water advisories, overcrowding and complex health conditions. None of the 33 First Nations have hospitals in the community and communities face an imminent risk of overwhelming their community pandemic resources,” adds Dr. Douglas.

SLFNHA declared a regional lockdown in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the emerging Omicron variant on December 30, and is now demanding immediate action from Ontario and Canada to support Sioux Lookout area communities in their work to protect members from the virus.

Sioux Lookout area Chiefs are now asking for additional COVID-19 resources such as assessment and testing centres, enhanced perimeter security measures, isolation infrastructure, food security programs and funding for operation and maintenance.

SLFNHA and local Chiefs are also urging Indigenous Services Canada, policing services and other service providers to respect community protocols, including isolation requirements and other protective measures, to ensure the safety of community members.

SLFNHA is hosting another Emergency Chiefs Meeting on January 19 at 2 p.m. on SLFNHA’s Facebook page.