Liard after lockdown: How residents are staying strong after COVID-19 came to town

·6 min read
Rose Betthale-Reid holds up the obituary her family wrote for her father William, who went missing in the Petitot River in 2010. She writes to him often during the pandemic as a way to stay strong.  (Anna Desmarais/CBC North - image credit)
Rose Betthale-Reid holds up the obituary her family wrote for her father William, who went missing in the Petitot River in 2010. She writes to him often during the pandemic as a way to stay strong. (Anna Desmarais/CBC North - image credit)

It's been over a month since COVID-19 swept through Fort Liard, N.W.T., but residents say the aftermath can still be felt.

On Jan. 16, the territory placed the community under a 14-day containment order to control the spread of COVID-19. It meant no gatherings, non-essential businesses and schools were closed and it was mandatory for people to wear masks while inside public spaces.

By the time the order was lifted on Jan. 30, six COVID-19 cases had been reported in the hamlet.

This was the first and only time the territory forced a community into lockdown in the first year of the pandemic.

When CBC North got to the community mid-February, the streets were quiet. People would come and go for groceries and other essentials, few staying long enough for small talk. That's not normal for Fort Liard, residents would say. In different times, the streets would be full of people enjoying each other's company.

A photo of Fort Liard's main street at 3 p.m. on a weekday. The hamlet has been very quiet since the arrival of COVID-19 in January.
A photo of Fort Liard's main street at 3 p.m. on a weekday. The hamlet has been very quiet since the arrival of COVID-19 in January.(Anna Desmarais/CBC North)

CBC North spoke to a couple residents in their homes and places of work to find out how the community's recuperating from the containment order, how they're staying resilient a year into COVID-19 and for their advice and how to make it through.

'I tell my dad I love him'

Rose Betthale-Reid got through the containment order by writing and singing to her missing father William as often as she can.

He was last seen on a river bank in northern British Columbia 10 years ago.

"I cry alot. I tell my dad I love him, I miss him, I want to talk to him," Betthale-Reid said.

She files all her letters into a bright purple box with his name on it. Betthale-Reid wrote to him before the pandemic, but her writing's increased in the last few months, so she can share some of her worries with him directly.

"Sometimes it's just two little words — miss you — sometimes it's a big long letter," she said.

Rose Betthale-Reid reads through the letters and mementos she's written for her father.
Rose Betthale-Reid reads through the letters and mementos she's written for her father. (Anna Desmarais/CBC North )

When the box is full, she starts a fire on their land with some tobacco and offers the letters to him directly.

When Betthale-Reid first heard about COVID-19, she figured it would last two to four months.

Then, after watching media reports of how much COVID-19 had spread throughout the country, she said she expected cases to come to her town, because of their proximity to the B.C. border.

"COVID-19 is like an invisible sickness, so it's kinda scary," she said. "I knew sooner or later it's going to come to [Fort] Liard, and it did."

Soon after COVID-19's arrival, Betthale-Reid's 74-year-old sister was forced into self-isolation after being in contact with a person who tested positive. The elder lives alone, and doesn't have a phone.

"I was really worried about her, because she doesn't talk English at all," Betthale-Reid said.

A picture of William Betthale, Rose's father. Rose and her sister recall their father's teachings during the pandemic as a way to stay strong.
A picture of William Betthale, Rose's father. Rose and her sister recall their father's teachings during the pandemic as a way to stay strong. (Anna Desmarais/CBC North)

The community pitched in to make sure Betthale-Reid's sister would be okay — frontline workers delivered groceries, relatives chopped wood to make sure her house would stay warm.

To get themselves through it, Betthale-Reid and her sister remind themselves of their father's teachings on the land, like how staying home at night to rest strengthens the spirit for the next day.

There's joy too. Betthale-Reid jigs with her husband on their "dance floor" in their living room. She beads while watching Christian movies. She'll go for drives with relatives on the highway, who point out the changes in the trees along the road.

"I count my blessings every morning," she said.

'I'm in awe of everything'

Across town, Joanne Deneron revels in being home again.

"I'm in awe of everything," she said. "I love the business, I love the people, I extra love my family, so I'm just so grateful to be home."

Deneron was visiting her partner and friends for New Years in Aklavik when Fort Liard was put under the containment order.

Deneron's children told her to stay put until it was safer to come home.

Joanne Deneron said it was 'heartbreaking' watching the containment order in Fort Liard from Aklavik. She called her family as often as she could to make sure they were all safe.
Joanne Deneron said it was 'heartbreaking' watching the containment order in Fort Liard from Aklavik. She called her family as often as she could to make sure they were all safe. (Anna Desmarais/CBC North )

"It was very, very hard. I worried constantly," Deneron said. "It was heartbreaking … you're so far away."

The family business, the Liard Valley General Store & Motel, immediately closed down for two days, so staff could stay home for their own safety.

Deneron's family spent the time sanitizing everything at hand, down to the store's shopping baskets and the pens on display.

After that, staff took turns coming in so people could still pick up their essentials.

Watching from afar, Deneron kept herself busy by making dried caribou meat and checking in with family as often as possible over text or video chat.

"[The containment order] made me … more appreciative of my family," she said.

The outside of the Liard Valley General Store in Fort Liard, N.W.T. Joanne Deneron runs this business with her children. It was closed for two days at the beginning of the containment order so staff could sanitize the whole building.
The outside of the Liard Valley General Store in Fort Liard, N.W.T. Joanne Deneron runs this business with her children. It was closed for two days at the beginning of the containment order so staff could sanitize the whole building. (Anna Desmarais/CBC North)

Deneron's also found new ways to keep calm, like reading more books and spending less time on social media.

During the summer, Deneron poured a lot of energy into her greenhouse garden, something she calls a "godsend" for her mental health.

She's noticed a transformation in her community, that as the pandemic goes on, the kinder people get.

"They're more accepting I guess, because we've gone through hard times, and we don't want to see that happen again," she said.

"The virus lives on everyone's minds … especially here in Fort Liard."

Deneron and Betthale-Reid recommend checking in on family members, friends and elders as often as possible, as the pandemic nears the one-year mark in the territory.

"Phone somebody," Betthale-Reid said. "There's always someone who loves you dearly."