How N.W.T Indigenous communities are adapting funeral practices during pandemic

Fred Simba’s life would be celebrated by everyone in Kakisa, N.W.T, if it wasn’t for the coronavirus. 

Simba, who died in early April, was a respected elder and fisherman in the community of about 50 to 60 people, who was known for being the first one out on the land – whether the ice was thick enough or not. 

Earlier this month, his family had to put out a statement to tell everyone the funeral would be restricted to his immediate family because of COVID-19. 

“We are so sorry … as our uncle has many family and friends out there, it breaks our hearts, but it is mandatory at this time,” the Simba family wrote in a statement.

Lloyd Chicot, chief of Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation (Kakisa), said it was “quite hard” for members of his community to get used to the physical distancing measures that had to be put in place for Simba’s funeral. At one point, the community had to start turning people away. 

“There were a lot of people phoning and messaging on social media saying that they wanted to be here but we couldn’t [let them],” Chicot said, citing safety concerns. “When we had the gathering, there was hardly anybody. That’s not usually how we do things.” 

The territorial government said in its most recent order that all indoor gatherings, including funerals, are to be cancelled to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Small outdoor burials with immediate family are still allowed. 

Restrictions makes burials difficult

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said all communities have different traditions for how to commemorate elders. It largely depends on what the family of the deceased wants to do. 

Generally speaking, Dene commemoration services start with community members sharing memories of the elder that died, Yakeleya said. During this period, elders normally lead the community in prayer. 

Later, the community participates in a wake and funeral service, followed by a “massive” feast, which sometimes includes a drum dance to celebrate the life of the elder, Yakeleya continued. 

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said all communities have different traditions for how to commemorate elders. It largely depends on what the family of the deceased wants to do. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

The restrictions, Yakeleya said, have made it difficult for people to honour and properly grieve their elders. 

“It’s not like before, where they could sit with the elders and really talk to each other, because of the [COVID-19] recommendations,” he said. 

“It’s a challenge, it’s all new but [the communities] have done a good job following their traditions to put their elders to rest.” 

Chicot agreed that the restrictions limited what can be done at the funeral, but said the health and safety of those still alive should come first. 

Yakeleya said he has some suggestions for the territorial government on how the public health order could “make it slightly easier” for the families who need to bury their elders. 

It’s a challenge, it’s all new but [the communities] have done a good job following their traditions to put their elders to rest.– Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya

“We have to open up some channels to say ‘with all due respect, we have to honour our people’ … while being conscientious of [COVID-19] recommendations,” Yakeleya said. 

“We have a lot of work to do to come together … [to find] a new way to lay our loved ones to the ground.” 

The territorial government wrote in a statement to CBC that this issue has not yet been brought to their attention, but pointed out that they are “working collaboratively” to set the agenda for regular meetings with Indigenous governments. 

Health officials still say there is a “high” risk of coronavirus in the territory, despite the recovery of all five confirmed cases. The restrictions will remain in place until the rest of Canada sees a decline in cases. 

Mass over the radio, 5 people maximum at funerals

Each community has adapted their commemorations in different ways. 

People in Tsiigehtchic took turns digging the grave of the late Frederick Blake Sr. last week, according to a series of Facebook posts by Blake’s son. 

The well-liked elder was buried with no more than five people surrounding him at one time. Many others lingered near the site in their vehicles, waiting for their turn to say goodbye. 

“I’ll always remember the good times we had and feel fortunate that he was a part of my life for the last 43 years,” Frederick Blake Jr., the MLA for Mackenzie Delta, wrote on Facebook. “We had a few bad days, but I know he was only trying to teach me the proper way of doing things and only wanted us to do well.” 

In Tulita, a funeral mass was held on the radio for elder Gabe Horrassi. The community allowed people to wait in their vehicles for their turn to pay their respects one-on-one. 

Paul Andrew, one of Horassi’s family members, told CBC on April 1 the family supported the altered funeral plan. 

“It’s difficult at the best of times, but particularly now, it’s not easy,” Andrew said. “But like the virus we’re going through, we’ll get over this. We’ll get through this.”

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