Indigenous communities close their borders in hopes of preventing COVID-19 spread
TORONTO -- Several Indigenous communities in Canada, already grappling with overcrowding and poor healthcare facilities, are closing their land borders to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus.
“One of the things that works for us is isolation,” Chief David Monias of Manitoba’s Pimicikamak Cree Nation, located more than 770 kilometres north of Winnipeg, told CTV News. “Isolation allows us to cut off the world from our communities.”
The First Nation has chosen to close its borders, check every vehicle upon entry and turn away outsiders for the protection of those living on the reserve.
Like many other Indigenous communities, leaders are concerned that an outbreak of COVID-19 would be debilitating due to difficult living conditions, overcrowding and limits for healthcare.
Canada’s 1.4 million Indigenous people experience higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians already, putting them at a heightened risk during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 will impact First Nations very differently from the rest of Canadian society,” Grand Chief Garrison Settee said during a recent press conference.
“When you live in a home with 10 people that is a challenge. Sanitation is very critical at this time.”
On Thursday, B.C.’s Haida Nation's council said it was discouraging "all non-resident travel" to the islands for the time, citing limited health resources.
Alberta’s Fort McKay First Nation and the Fort McKay Metis also made the joint decision to close their borders this week, only allowing community members, essential services and staff past dedicated checkpoints.
Canada’s Indigenous population was hit hard during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, known as the swine flu. At the time, Health Canada was scrutinized for sending more than two dozen body bags to Wasagamack First Nation in Manitoba “in preparation” for the outbreak. The agency later apologized.
The Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) has already made several COVID-19-related recommendations for Manitoba’s First Nations, including stopping all gatherings of 10 people or more.
But Indigenous leaders are calling on the federal government for additional support.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that Ottawa will provide $305 million to help First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities fight the spread of the virus. Details of the funding have yet to be released.
“We recognize that Indigenous Canadians are faced with greater health vulnerabilities than most Canadians at the best of times,” Trudeau said Thursday while addressing the media from self-isolation.
The federal government is also sending remote communities “temporary portable structures” to facilitate disease screening in places with housing shortages.