Birdtail, Keeseekoowenin weather pandemic storm

·5 min read

Birdtail Sioux First Nation and the Ojibway First Nation have both seen COVID-19 vaccine roll out in their communities this week.

Elders in both communities are at the top of the list.

But Birdtail Chief Ken Chalmers did say vaccine fear is real. He said at least one person is waiting to see how it works out for others.

"But we’re campaigning to get that done," he said, but that vaccine wasn’t wasted as someone further down the list, according to age, took it.

Social media, Chalmers said, is the main root of vaccine fear.

Chalmers said the community has had a few scares.

"We had one case that we isolated. We’re back down to zero," he said, adding the person had travelled to a hospital and that’s likely where the virus was contracted.

Everyone in contact with that person was isolated. All tests came back negative and that person is now doing well.

Keeseekoowenin Chief Norman Bone said, so far, his community hasn’t seen a case.

"We’ve been fortunate to not have any cases, here," Bone said.

"We’ve done fairly well since last spring."

Bone said the community is observing the fundamentals, as dictated by provincial public health officials — and leadership has communicated those to community members.

"We’ve tried to make all the people aware to take all the precautions, in terms of self-isolation, wearing masks, shopping for essentials only," he said.

"Whatever it is we’ve done, is working for us."

While Birdtail has barriers blocking visitors from entering the community, such is not the case at Keeseekoowenin, due to the community having multiple entry points. Bone has previously said it is simply not possible to blockade the community.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Indigenous Services Canada associate deputy minister Valerie Gideon said the highest funding requests her department received are for perimeter security.

"For communities to be able to try and control that to-and-from traffic into community. We’re close to 350 communities that have closed their borders to non-essential travel, and are really maintaining their resolve in order to protect their community members," she said.

However, Chalmers wonders which communities received those funds because he does not have certainty that his community will see reimbursement for roadblocks.

While Gideon said those measures are critical, Chalmers said he’s getting mixed messages on that matter, and so far the First Nation is using its own dollars.

"We got zero," Chalmers said.

"Security costs $90,000 a month. And they won’t tell us who got that money."

Chalmers references Shamattawa First Nation, which required an emergency response, which likely cost the federal government millions of dollars. He acknowledges Northern reserves are getting hit hard, but he’s also very concerned about protecting his own reserve.

The feds, said Chalmers, told Birdtail is in a low-risk area. But due to the same reasons any reserve is vulnerable, so is Birdtail.

"That was a surprise to me. The whole province is in code red," he said.

Food security is an issue, and both Chalmers and Bone said that’s being handled. Birdtail has its own store, and is providing vouchers for those who need them. At Keeseekoowenin, fishing and hunting continues to provide additional support.

"Last year, we started fishing, doing our own process of getting food to the people that would need. We’re still doing that," Bone said.

The community also benefitted from the Fisher River Cree Nation receiving $11 million from the Surplus Food Rescue Program to rescue up to 2.9 million pounds of freshwater fish, which was distributed to more than 75 Indigenous communities throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the North.

"We took part in that and we’re still distributing some of that fish," Bone said.

The area sees mostly deer, and hunting parties have been out to add that to the community’s food source.

"The guys have been going out and providing some of that as a food source for some of the people that require it here in the community," Bone said.

"Some of the stuff we’d been doing before. We also making sure potatoes and some basic stuff … We’ve been doing some of this stuff over the years, already. We just carried on with that."

But Bone added distribution was increased over previous years.

School children are also being protected, as both communities have been going the remote learning route. Bone said that has been working well for Keeseekoowenin.

What’s hardest for on-reserve members? Funerals.

Gathering to grieve and celebrate the life of a loved one is impossible in these times. Public health orders have limited these gatherings.

A funeral may have been the site of some viral spread at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation — the community put out a notice that anyone who attended a particular funeral, and showed signs of symptoms, should get tested. Chief Jennifer Bone did not return a call from The Brandon Sun.

Chalmers plans to organize a memorial for all those the community has lost during these many long pandemic months.

For now, he just wants to keep all children and elders safe to the fall of 2021.

As for Bone, he’s just grateful things have worked out the way they have for his community so far.

Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun