Akwesasne rising to challenge of blending COVID-19 protocols of three jurisdictions

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AKWESASNE, ONTARIO, CANADA — Grappling with the unique jurisdictional reality of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory has always been difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging.

The second most populated reserve in Canada, Akwesasne straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York state.

Although an agreement signed years ago puts the Canadian side of the community under Ontario's Ministry of Health, those living on the east side of the provincial border must still follow Quebec's emergency orders.

"We've seen the province of Ontario take some measures and the province of Quebec taken some measures, but we here have instituted our own," said Grand Chief Abram Benedict.

Akwesasne's COVID-19 protocols are designed to satisfy the measures of both provinces while also supporting the people who live within the community of approximately 12,000 people.

A curfew that asks residents to be home between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. has been in place since November — well before Quebec enforced a curfew and Ontario issued a stay-at-home order.

Residents of Akwesasne also have restrictions on how far they can travel outside of the territory. The limit was established in April and was originally set at 80 kilometres but has since been extended to 160 kilometres on either side of the international border. Anyone who travels beyond that distance must quarantine for 14 days upon returning home.

Benedict said that the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne — the governing body of the Canadian districts of the territory — has had to co-ordinate its public health measures with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which oversees the American side of the community.

"We went several months in the beginning of the pandemic with very little cases but now over the past month and a half, two months, we've seen in a surge in positive cases including the unfortunate deaths of a few of our long-term care residents," said Benedict.

"At this point we're really feeling the pressure of trying to get the vaccine rolled out and making sure the community abides by all the public health orders and recommendations. Tough times."

Akwesasne's geography has led to hostilities during the pandemic when its residents leave the territory.

On Friday, Benedict and Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Bernadette Clement both condemned harassing notes left on the windshields of Akwesasne residents when they went into the Ontario town to go grocery shopping.

"What we need now more than anything is respect, compassion and lots of kindness," said Clement in an open letter, pointing out that Akwesasne residents may have licence plates from Ontario, Quebec, or New York but are not breaking any travel bans when they leave their territory.

In his official statement on the notes, Benedict explained the "jurisdictional nightmare" his community has to grapple with.

"(It) often creates hardship for our community members, can be difficult to explain to others, and for anyone who was previously unaware, it can be understandably challenging to fully comprehend," wrote Benedict.

Akwesasne's health program said on Monday that 110 residents and staff of long-term care facilities in the territory had received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine over the weekend.

The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne works in partnership with the Eastern Ontario Public Health Unit, including on the distribution of vaccines. The St. Regis Tribe council is co-ordinating its efforts directly with the U.S. federal government.

Benedict said that because the community has its own robust public health system, the vaccine is provided by the governments but administered by Akwesasne's medical professionals.

Eight new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in the northern side of the territory by Akwesasne public health authorities on Friday. The south side had one new case reported on the same day. There are 30 active cases in the Canadian side and 17 on the American. The community has had a total of five deaths linked to the virus.

— By John Chidley-Hill in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.

The Canadian Press