Curfews, lockdowns, and checkpoints: How First Nations are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic

While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increases in First Nations across the country, some communities have issued lockdowns, erected checkpoints, and implemented curfews to curb the spread of the pandemic.

The Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas, Man., passed a motion to evict tenants who continue to disobey physical distancing rules by having large gatherings, house parties, or selling illicit drugs.

Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair said members caught having more than 10 people on their property — whether in a home, garage, or shed — will receive an eviction notice once the First Nation’s state of emergency is lifted.

“The idea is to be proactive, rather than reactive,” said Sinclair.

“We’ve had band members that are concerned about their health and wellbeing, recognizing the fact that we have a high rate of diabetes in the community. We wanted to ensure [we] heard the membership, and have taken action on it.”

Opaskwayak Cree Nation Chief Christian Sinclair says the First Nation will evict tenants who disobey physical distancing rules by having large gatherings and house parties. (CBC)

The community also implemented a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and hired over a dozen members to act as security. Sinclair said depending on the situation, verbal warnings, written warnings or a $100 fine could be issued.

“If they’re caught having a party or exceeding the number of 10 people at social gatherings, they will be evicted once this COVID-19 crisis ends,” he said.

“There’s zero tolerance for that type of activity because we value the importance of life and the severity of this pandemic.”

Enforcement an issue

There are currently no positive cases of the coronavirus in Manitoba First Nations, but the number of cases on reserve in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec has risen to 52 as of April 19 according to Indigenous Services Canada. One death was also reported in Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario last week.

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The majority of cases are in Quebec. It’s why Serge Simon, the grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, plans on hiring around 30 community members to staff checkpoints into the Mohawk community northwest of Montreal.

There are no positive cases in Kanesatake, but the community closed its cannabis dispensaries and tobacco shops last month to limit non-local traffic. Enforcement has been an issue, said Simon, as Kanesatake doesn’t have its own police force.

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon says his community’s lack of a local police force makes enforcing restrictions on access to the reserve difficult. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“We’re trying to keep outside agencies from imposing their jurisdiction on us, so if we don’t do it for ourselves, it leaves a vacuum and opportunity for the province to take over,” said Simon.

“We want to tell the customers that come here to stop, turn around, and go home. When this thing is over, we don’t want our businesses to suffer. We want to make sure when they’re turned around, they’re done so politely and under strict guidelines.”

Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the Quebec, Ontario, and New York State borders, also enacted an emergency curfew law this week, keeping members inside between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. It comes with a $1,000 fine for those who contravene. 

Matt Rourke, chief of police of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police, said in a video message to the community this week that they’ve been seeing high amounts of traffic at night after stores in the region are closed.

“It’s unfortunate.There’s no reason for anybody to be out after 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” said Rourke.

“Our biggest thing is our traffic volume. We need to reduce that to the community for public safety.”

Cottagers a problem

Other communities in Ontario have faced challenges with enforcing pandemic measures. Whitefish River First Nation on Manitoulin Island restricted access to the community as a part of a four-phase pandemic plan that could lead to a total lockdown but is struggling with getting cottagers and snowbirds who aren’t from the community to co-operate.

Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario is struggling with getting cottagers and snowbirds who aren’t from the community to co-operate with its community restrictions. (Erik White/CBC )

Whitefish River is policed by the UCCM Anishnaabe Police Service, which services five other First Nations on and near Manitoulin Island.

“Because of distance, it’s difficult for our police force to adequately provide service especially during these times,” said Art Jacko, band manager.

He said they may have to invoke a newly-passed trespass bylaw on the cottagers who are still in the community.

“We really don’t want to do that. We want to maintain positive relations, but at the same time our priority is the health of our community,” he said.

“Seventy-five per cent of our residents have compromised immune conditions. One case of COVID-19 will have such an impact that will be very difficult to overcome.”

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